China has admitted to the existence of special cyber warfare units as pressure between the country and United States over cyberespionage continues to rise.
China has long been the target of suspicion relating to high-profile cyberattacks and state-sponsored campaigns. The country has continually denied the existence of military hackers who were believed to conduct these attacks. However, for the first time, China has formally revealed its military does have dedicated cyber warfare units -- in fact, the state sponsors a number of them, which specialize in different areas.
China's digital war tactics are discussed in the latest edition of publication The Science of Military Strategy, which is produced by China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) once in a blue moon. Joe McReynolds, a researcher of China's network warfare and capabilities for the US Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, told The Daily Beast "this is the first time we've seen an explicit acknowledgement of the existence of China's secretive cyber warfare forces from the Chinese side."
Speaking to the publication, McReynolds says the unmasking is the first time cyber warfare capabilities have been admitted to on both the military and civilian-government sides.
Deniability, naturally, has now been lost -- and whether China's denial was ever believed in the first place is now a moot point. McReynolds commented:
"It means that the Chinese have discarded their fig leaf of quasi-plausible deniability. As recently as 2013, official PLA publications have issued blanket denials such as, 'The Chinese military has never supported any hacker attack or hacking activities.' They can't make that claim anymore."
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In October last year, FBI Director James Comey said cyberattacks targeting US businesses and originating from China costs companies billions every year. However, Comey went further, calling Chinese hackers "aggressive" and "widespread" in their attempts to break into US systems.
The FBI Director said much of the damage caused by such attacks was down to determination and being simply prolific rather than sophistication -- and often Chinese hackers act like "drunk burglars" when poking around US networks.
According to McReynolds, China's digital military strategy has been split up into three separate sections. One unit, called "specialized military network warfare forces," focus on carrying out network cyberattacks and defense. Secondly, another unit comprises of civilian teams which have been given the go-ahead by the Chinese military to carry out "network warfare operations." Finally, another unit acts as an umbrella for "external entities" which "can be organized and mobilized for network warfare operations," but act outside of government departments.
The Chinese military expert says that each unit targets US companies in order to steal valuable data related to business and trade. This, in turn, can give Chinese firms a boost in the global economy.
In May, the United States charged five Chinese nationals described as "military hackers" with breaking into US corporate networks to steal sensitive data. These men allegedly belonged to Unit 61398, the focus of a study conducted by FireEye's Mandiant cyberforensics team in 2013.
The report claimed that a 12-story building associated with the PLA hosted this unit, which connects a number of sophisticated Chinese hacking groups including the "Comment Crew" and "Shanghai Group." Mandiant says that Unit 61398 was likely responsible for an "overwhelming" number of cyberattacks, whereas at the time Chinese officials dismissed the allegations as "groundless."