US expert: Chinese gov't likely behind massive cyberattacks

US lawmakers are calling for new policies for dealing with the Chinese government

The Chinese government is likely behind recent cyberattacks on U.S. government Web sites and on U.S. companies in an apparent effort to quash criticism of the government there, an expert on U.S. and Chinese relations said Wednesday.

There's no conclusive proof that recent attacks on Google and dozens of other U.S. companies are directed by the Chinese government, but logic would point to official Chinese involvement, said Larry Wortzel (PDF), a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and a former U.S. Army counterintelligence officer.

Google complained in January that it and several other U.S. companies were victims of recent cyberattacks coming from inside China. It is "not clear" who ordered the attacks, but it appears the Chinese government was involved, said Wortzel, who has served in the U.S. embassy in China.

There is a group of skilled hackers in China that routinely attacks systems to spy on political dissidents, said Wortzel, speaking during a U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing. Chinese government agencies and Communist Party organizations would be the likely recipients of information obtained by hackers, he said.

"I concede that I cannot prove this beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law," Wortzel added. "There may be a group of patriotic hackers in China who just hate criticism of the Communist Party and would take such action. But I believe such persistent, systematic and sophisticated attacks, some of which have taken place in the United States, in China, in Germany and in the United Kingdom, most likely are state-directed."

Multiple efforts to reach the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., for comment by telephone Wednesday were met with busy signals. Information on the "contact us" page on the embassy's Web site has been deleted.

In addition to attacks on Google and other U.S. companies, attacks from inside China are targeting U.S. military, technical and scientific information, Wortzel said.

"Not all of this cyber-espionage may be government-controlled," he said. "There may be plenty of cyber-espionage entrepreneurs in China who operate outside government control that could be working on behalf of Chinese companies or the 54 state-run science and technology parks around the country."

But the U.S. Department of Justice is prosecuting several espionage cases involving defense and other U.S. technology being turned over to unidentified Chinese officials, Wortzel said. "Let us be candid," he said. "A logical person would conclude that some of this activity is directed by the Chinese government."

Several members of the House committee used the hearing to criticize the Chinese government's filtering of Web content or its tracking of online dissidents. Wednesday's hearing was the second in Congress this month on other countries' efforts to censor the Internet.

More than 70 people are in prison in China for posting information online, said Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican. Other countries have put bloggers and Web journalists in prison as well, he said.

Representative Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, suggested the U.S. should suspend imports of Chinese goods in protest of widespread copyright violations and theft of intellectual property. U.S. businesses should tell Congress to "get tough" with the Chinese government, he said.

"When you ask them for specifics, they basically ask that we beg in a louder voice, which is not effective with China," Sherman said. "The business community is totally unwilling to say, 'Well, why don't we have a week where we block our ports to Chinese imports?'"

Robert Holleyman, president and CEO of the Business Software Alliance, said a "record needs to be built very quickly" on the effect of intellectual property theft by the Chinese on U.S. businesses. The U.S. government should then file trade complaints against China, he said.

Sherman said he doubted that tactic would work. "Are you proposing action that would, in any way, diminish Chinese access to U.S. markets?" he said. "I guarantee delay and failure unless you're willing to support, and the business community is ready to support, action at the ports. In these bilateral [discussions], we'll throw paper at them, and they'll throw paper at us."

Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and outspoken critic of the Chinese government, suggested the U.S. government set new ground rules for U.S. businesses to operate in China. He didn't detail what new ground rules he wanted, although he said China should not have the same trading rights that other U.S. trade partners have.

"You can't treat gangsters and tyrants as if they are the same as democratic leaders and honest people and expect there not to be some problems developing," he said. "We have our business community stepping on themselves trying to get over there to make a profit."

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