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Pentagon Accuses Chinese Government and Army of Backing Cyber-Attacks

A U.S. Defense Department’s report says some hacking attempts “appear to be attributable directly” to official organizations in Beijing.

HONG KONG -- Washington stepped up its charges against Beijing-backed cyber-attacks Monday, as an official report on China’s military activities described the country’s government and army as possible instigators of hacking campaigns against U.S. government websites.

Under a section titled “Cyber Activities Directed Against the Department of Defense,” the Pentagon’s annual report on “military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China” reads: “In 2012, numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military.

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“China is using its computer network exploitation capability to support intelligence collection against the U.S. diplomatic, economic and defense industrial base sectors that support U.S. national defense programs,” the report continues. “The information targeted could potentially be used to benefit China’s defense industry, high technology industries, policymaker interest in U.S. leadership thinking on key China issues and military planners building a picture of U.S. network defense networks, logistics and related military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis.”

These charges are the latest and most strongly worded accusation in the U.S. government’s continuous and escalating campaign in painting the Chinese authorities as nurturing increasingly aggressive cyber-warriors in its ranks.

In last year’s document, international intrusions of computer systems and data theft were merely described as being “originated within China.” The Pentagon’s harsher accusations this time around echo a report issued by U.S. cyber-security firm Mandiant in February, when it accuses the People’s Liberation Army of launching cyber-attacks against U.S. companies -- ranging from sensitive defense industries to media conglomerates -- with a special, clandestine unit based in an unmarked compound in Shanghai.

The Chinese defense ministry has denied the report’s claims and countered them with its own figures stating that their online portals have been hacked an average of of 144,000 times per month last year, with almost two-thirds of the attacks originating in the United States.

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Beijing has yet to respond to the Pentagon report’s latest accusations. Speaking in March about the Mandiant accusations, the then-Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi said: “Anyone who tries to fabricate or piece together a sensational story to serve their political motive will not be able to blacken the name of others or whitewash themselves. We hope the relevant parties will stop irresponsible attacks or accusations.”

Washington’s accusations against Beijing’s backing of cyber-attacks also followed similar but lesser charges issued against North Korea in a report issued earlier this year, when the Pyongyang authorities were described as “probably” having a military computer network operations capability, noting how the authorities have been implicated in several cyber attacks against South Korean businesses since 2009.