WASHINGTON — The U.S. government for the first time is publicly warning the Chinese government about their military's use of civilian computer experts in clandestine cyber attacks aimed at American companies and government agencies.
In a move that is being seen as a pointed signal to Beijing, the Pentagon laid out its concerns this week in a carefully worded report.
The People's Liberation Army, the Pentagon said, is using "information warfare units" to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks, and those units include civilian computer professionals.
The assertion shines a light on a quandary that has troubled American authorities for some time: How does the United States deal with cyber espionage emanating from China and almost certainly directed by the government — despite the fact that U.S. officials don't have or can't show proof of those ties?
Asked about the civilian hackers, a Defense Department spokesman said the Pentagon is concerned about any potential threat to its computer networks. The Pentagon, said Cmdr. Bob Mehal, will monitor the PLA's buildup of its cyberwarfare capabilities, and "will continue to develop capabilities to counter any potential threat."
"The Chinese government, particularly the PLA, has sought to tap into the hacker community and take advantage of it," said cybersecurity expert James Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "One of the things that the Defense Department has been looking for is a way to start signaling potential opponents about activities that might cross the line in cyberspace."
The China report, Lewis said, is one way to send that signal to Beijing.
The Pentagon report says that last year "numerous computer systems around the world, including those owned by the U.S. government, continued to be the target of intrusions that appear to have originated within" the People's Republic of China.
Those attacks, the report said, "focused on exfiltrating information, some of which could be of strategic or military utility."
The Pentagon also pointed to an allegedly China-based computer spying network — dubbed GhostNet — that was revealed in a research report last year. The report said the spy ring stole sensitive information from nearly 1,300 computers, including those on networks belonging to embassies, government offices, and the Dalai Lama and his exiled Tibetan government. Chinese officials denied any involvement.
U.S. government agencies and major corporations have repeatedly complained about cyber attacks targeting sensitive defense programs and other high-tech industries. Computer security experts say they are often called to companies to dissect computer network intrusions that contain Chinese code or that can be tracked to Internet addresses in that country.
But experts acknowledge it is difficult to precisely determine if the cyber intrusions are directed or sanctioned by the Chinese government or its military.