Leaked US diplomatic cables have provided some of the first hard evidence that the US is engaged in a heated cyberespionage battle with China, a conflict diplomats reckon is showing few signs of cooling off.
Diplomatic cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and released to the media by a third party last week, trace a series of breaches codenamed Byzantine Hades back to a specific unit of China's People's Liberation Army.
Websites associated with attacks dating back to 2006 were registered using the same postal code in the central Chinese town of Chengdu that is used by the People's Liberation Army Chengdu Province First Technical Reconnaissance Bureau (TRB), an electronic espionage unit.
At least six such bureaus, including the Chengdu unit, "are likely focused on defines or exploitation of foreign networks", according to a report by officials in the State Department's Cyber Threat Analysis Division and quoted in the leaked cable, which was written in April 2009.
The Byzantine Hades attacks, which ran from 2006 through till at least October 2008 – and are possibly still ongoing – used targeted emails that attempted to trick recipients into opening booby-trapped attachments. Common malware payloads involved the so-called Gh0stNet Remote Access Tool (RAT), a strain of malware capable of capturing keystrokes, taking screen shots, installing and changing files, and even surreptitiously recording conversations before uploading them to a remote server, Reuters reports.
Servers used in the exercise were the same as those previously linked to attacks on Tibetan websites around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
The cable reports claim that a Shanghai-based hacker group linked to the People's Liberation Army's Third Department was involved in the assaults. The leaked cable names a hacker named Yinan Peng from a group called Javaphile as among those involved in the assaults.
Both US government agencies and private sector firms became victims of the attacks.
Hackers successfully swiped "50 megabytes of email messages and attached documents, as well as a complete list of usernames and passwords from an unspecified [US government] agency," the cable said.
Other targets of the assaults include the US Embassy in Tokyo, Japan. The cable quotes a meeting at the Ramstein Air Base in September 2008 when German and French officials told their US opposite numbers that they had also been hit by cyber-espionage attacks.
The leaked cable was written months before China went public over hack attacks against the US search giant and other high-tech firms that were creating diplomatic tension between the US and China. The cable speaks of a series of diplomatic meetings between US and Chinese officials. US diplomats seem fairly sure that the Chinese are behind the attacks, whose main motive seems to be to steal trade secrets that might be used to sustain China's economic growth. The talks reportedly remain ongoing, even though progress remains slow.
Chinese officials are seemingly happy enough to assure the US that they have no interest in destabilising the US economy – as a major stockholder such actions would be counterproductive – but clam up when talk turns to cyber-espionage. Senior figures in the government, when pressed on the issue, are inclined to state that China is being spied upon more than it is spying on others. ®