China denies its military hacked Pentagon network

Second time in two weeks China has had to answer claims it hacked another country's computers

China Tuesday denied allegations that its military hacked a Pentagon network in June -- the second time in as many weeks that the country has responded to charges of sponsoring computer attacks.

"Some people are making wild accusations against China and wantonly saying the Chinese military attacked the Pentagon's computer network," Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said in Beijing, according to the state-controlled Xinhua news service. "These are totally groundless and also reflect a Cold War mentality," she added.

Jiang was responding to a story published by the Financial Times this weekend that quoted American officials who said the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was behind the June hack. One person familiar with the incident told the Financial Times that there was a "very high level of confidence... trending towards total certainty" that the PLA was responsible.

Other sources told the publication that Chinese hackers probed the Pentagon system for months before the attacks, which forced the U.S. to take the network offline for more than a week.

The Department of Defense downplayed the attack, but declined to point the finger at any one country or group. The attack on an unclassified e-mail network in the Office of the Secretary of Defense required that the systems be taken offline, spokesman Bryan Whitman acknowledged today, but backup networks kicked in. He would not confirm that China hackers were behind the assault, saying only that it's often difficult to pinpoint the origin of an intrusion into computer systems.

But the Pentagon did not stand idly by, he said. "Cyber or non-kinetic type threats to military computer networks are viewed as just as real and just as significant as physical or kinetic threats," Whitman said in a statement. "The department aggressively responds to deter all intrusions to defend what is known as the GIG, the global information grid."

Just a month before the attack, the Department of Defense had issued a report claiming that the PLA fields first-strike cyberwarfare units whose arsenals include computer viruses they might unleash on enemy networks.

When the Pentagon released its annual report on the state of China's military strength in late May, Jiang, the same foreign ministry spokeswoman who blasted the story today, took exception to its overall tone, although she didn't mention cyberwarfare specifically. The U.S., she said then, "continues to spread myth of the 'China Threat' by exaggerating China's military strength and expenses out of ulterior motives."

Last week, Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, raised the same issue during her visit to Beijing after the popular weekly Der Spiegel said systems at several government ministries, including Merkel's own office, had been infected with spyware planted by Chinese hackers.

In statements made during a press conference August 27, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao called the reports of "grave concern" and promised that China would cooperate with Germany in its investigation.

Today, Jiang seemed to echo Wen's comments. "The Chinese government has always opposed any Internet-wrecking crime, including hacking, and cracked down on it according to the law," she said.

The Chinese military has been involved with hacking and viruses since at least the early 1990s, according to a 2000 paper written by Timothy Thomas of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth.

Coincidentally, the president of both China and the U.S. will face off this week in Australia during meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. Hu Jintao, China's president, arrived in the country yesterday, while President George W. Bush arrived in Sydney today. Trade and climate change are expected to lead the agenda during the 21-country talks. Hu and Bush are scheduled to meet one-on-one during the conference.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld

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