SHANGHAI May 20 A tense stand-off between the
United States and China over state-backed cyber espionage has
dragged China's secretive hacking unit "61398" back into focus,
after the military group was pinpointed last year for mounting
cyber attacks on Western commercial targets.
U.S. authorities on Monday charged five Chinese military
officers at the unit, accusing them of hacking into American
nuclear, metal and solar firms to steal trade secrets.
China on Tuesday summoned the U.S. ambassador in
Beijing and warned it would retaliate if Washington followed
through with the charges. It said the affair would damage
At the centre of the row is a nondescript tower block in the
northern suburbs of China's financial capital Shanghai, home to
Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Unit 61398.
The 12-storey block houses as many as several thousand
staff, according to Mandiant, a U.S. cyber security firm
recently acquired by global network security company FireEye Inc
. Mandiant identified the location as the source of a
large number of espionage operations in a 70-page report last
"This unit is one of the most prolific. The group is really
active and very aggressive," said Pierluigi Paganini, a cyber
security expert and founder of Security Affairs, based in Italy.
Unit 61398's Shanghai base is kitted out with specialist
fiber optic lines, while staff are trained in areas from English
linguistics to covert communications, network security and cyber
attack strategy, according to the Mandiant report.
The unit's operatives, working under code names such as
"UglyGorilla", "DOTA" and "SuperHard", also have close research
and recruitment ties with China's leading academic centres such
as the prestigious Shanghai Jiaotong University.
Publicly available academic reports, school registers,
recruitment notices and local online community notice boards
show a web of social, educational and academic networks
spreading out from the cyber spying unit. Military units in
China are often organised in this way with schools, sports clubs
and social events organised communally for unit members.
TIP OF THE ICEBERG
However, unit 61398 - more formally known as General Staff
Department (GSD), Third Department, Second Bureau - is just one
of dozens of similar groups based in China, and far from the
foremost, said Mandiant analyst Jen Weedon.
"The unit is one of many and its tradecraft is not that
great. They are one of the ones that doesn't seem to mind
leaving traces behind," she told Reuters.
The unit, which started operating in or before 2006, saw
activity drop sharply in the wake of the 2013 Mandiant report,
but has since returned to "business as usual" after it
overhauled some of its hacking techniques, Weedon added.
The new allegations are that Chinese state-owned firms
"hired" the unit, which used a range of cyber attack methods to
illegally gather corporate information from mostly U.S. firms
and help give Chinese companies a competitive edge.
The unit "stole sensitive, internal communications", using
tactics such as "spear phishing" emails to gain access to
employees' computers, after which it was able to collect
internal data, according to the indictment document, posted on
the United States Department of Justice website.
Federal prosecutors said the suspects targeted companies
including Alcoa Inc, Allegheny Technologies Inc,
United States Steel Corp, Toshiba Corp unit
Westinghouse Electric Co, the U.S. subsidiaries of SolarWorld AG
, and a steel workers' union.
Unit 61398 - or at least one very much like it - also stole
data from at least one U.S. government agency in a hacking
campaign named 'Byzantine Candor', according to diplomatic
cables released by Wikileaks.
"Hackers based in Shanghai and linked to the PRC's People's
Liberation Army (PLA) Third Department" stole data from at least
one U.S. government agency, according to a leaked 2008 cable.
Officials in Washington have argued for years that cyber
espionage is a top national security concern, and the battle is
heating up. Both sides have ramped up public and private
confrontation, including at a summit last year between U.S.
President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China has denied the unit is involved in cyber espionage,
and insists the country is more a victim than a perpetrator of
Paganini said he was not surprised at the latest turn of
events, which he described as just the "tip of the iceberg".
"I believe there's an ongoing battle in the cyberspace.
These countries are investing large amounts in cyber units that
are able to create specific malware and have the ability to get
into foreign networks and computers to steal trade secrets and
intellectual properties," he said.
(Additional reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff in SINGAPORE, Joseph
Menn in SAN FRANSISCO and Paul Carsten in BEIJING; Editing by