Categories: SecurityWorkspace

China Urges US To Drop Cyber Espionage Charges

China has reacted angrily to US charges against five men for alleged cyber espionage on a host of US companies.

Yesterday, the US filed indictments against members of Unit 61398 of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). They were: Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu, and Gu Chunhui.

The men are facing 31 counts, which the Chinese have declared “ridiculous” and the Asian superpower has summoned the US ambassador Max Baucus to express their concern over the charges.

China anger over cyber espionage claims

In a statement on its website, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the move represented “a serious violation of the basic norms of international relations” and would “damage Sino-US cooperation and mutual trust”.

“The Chinese government’s stance on the network security issues is consistent and clear. China is a staunch defender of network security, the Chinese government and military and associated personnel never engaged in theft of trade secrets or participate in activities through the network,” said foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang.

He also called on the US to stop carrying out spying of its own, following the Edward Snowden revelations of mass surveillance by the National Security Agency, although the US has distinguished between national security snooping and cyber espionage for economic gain.

Reports in March indicated Chinese networking giant Huawei was being targeted by the NSA. The reports in the New York Times and Der Spiegel also indicated the NSA was snooping on Chinese politicians and other businesses.

The foreign ministry has reportedly stated it would now suspend a Sino-US working group on cyber issues.

Yesterday’s indictment marked an escalation of the threats between the US and China over digital espionage, even if it’s highly unlikely anything tangible will come of the filing. China would have to hand over the charged men for any trial to occur, which is unlikely to happen.

The alleged US victims of the Unit 61398 were: Westinghouse Electric Company, US subsidiaries of SolarWorld , United States Steel Corp, Allegheny Technologies , the United Steelworkers Union (USW) and Alcoa, a lightweight metals manufacturer.

In early 2013, security company Mandiant claimed Unit 61398 were responsible for attacks on almost 150 organisations over a seven-year period as the alleged hacking crew was labelled  “one of the most prolific cyber espionage groups” ever.

“This is a case alleging economic espionage by members of the Chinese military and represents the first ever charges against a state actor for this type of hacking,” said US attorney general Eric Holder.

“The range of trade secrets and other sensitive business information stolen in this case is significant and demands an aggressive response.

“This Administration will not tolerate actions by any nation that seeks to illegally sabotage American companies and undermine the integrity of fair competition in the operation of the free market.”

FBI director James Comey said the Chinese government had “blatantly sought to use cyber espionage to obtain economic advantage for its state-owned industries”, adding that there were many more victims that those named yesterday.

BAE Systems, a British government contractor, was encouraged by the US move.  “This really could be a landmark moment that has the potential to change the way in which we respond to the growing threat presented by digital criminality,” said Martin Sutherland, managing director of BAE Systems Applied Intelligence. “We are constantly working to devise the most rigorous and comprehensive cyber defences possible, but there is little real deterrent against these crimes if the crime cannot be attributed to any individual or if those responsible are not brought to justice.”

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Thomas Brewster

Tom Brewster is TechWeek Europe's Security Correspondent. He has also been named BT Information Security Journalist of the Year in 2012 and 2013.

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