Sometimes the truth is scarier than fiction, like in the case of China's cyber attacks on the United States.
In what reads more like a crime novel than a true story, a report released today (Tuesday) from Virginia-based cybersecurity firm Mandiant, a specific Chinese military unit is likely behind one of the largest cyber attacks aimed at American corporations and infrastructure.
China's Unit 61398, housed in a 12-story building in Shanghai with a headcount in the hundreds, is being accused of stealing "hundreds of terabytes of data from at least 141 organizations" since 2006. Some 115 targets in 20 different industrial sectors from energy and aerospace to transportation to financial institutions are said to have been violated.
The investigation tracked, for the first time, individual members of the savviest Chinese hacking group, dubbed "Comment Crew" and "Shanghai Group," directly to the military unit's headquarters. While Mandiant couldn't pinpoint the hackers' exact whereabouts inside the high-rise, the firm very convincingly makes the case that the building is where the attacks originated.
"Once [Unit 61398] has established access [to a target network], they periodically revisit the victim's network over several months or years and steal broad categories of intellectual property, including technology blueprints, proprietary manufacturing processes, test results, business plans, pricing documents, partnership agreements, and emails and contacts lists from victim organizations' leadership," the detailed 74-page report reads.
American officials also confirmed that digital forensic evidence presented by Mandiant leads to the Shanghai building as the prime source of the attacks, according to The New York Times, which first reported on Mandiant's findings Monday. Mandiant is the same firm The Times secured to investigate the cyber attacks that infiltrated their own systems in China last month.
The Chinese government adamantly denies the allegations. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei said at a press conference the claims in the Mandiant report were unsupported.
"To make groundless accusations based on some rough material is neither responsible nor professional. Cyberattacks are anonymous and transnational, and it is hard to trace the origin of attacks, so I don't know how the findings of the report are credible," The Wall Street Journal reported.
This has led the Obama administration to continually warn about cyber threats that are capable of causing widespread damage.
In a recent speech, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said computer assaults from rogue countries or terrorists could be as destructive as the Sept. 11 attacks. At the Pentagon, plans have been in place since 2010 to combat this threat.
But it's not just the nation's security that is at risk. Most global corporations are also vulnerable to cyberattacks.
An August cyberattack on Saudi Arabia's state oil company, Saudi Aramco, incapacitated about 30,000 computers. It was probably the most destructive attack ever launched against a non-government entity.
The risk of an attack is particularly high in the corporate sector because of the complacency of its executives. According to a recent study by the consultancy firm PwC, entitled PwC's 2013 Global State of Information Security Survey, most executives are too optimistic about their companies' ability to handle cyberattacks.
The study warned that the rise in the number and sophistication of security incidents globally, along with scrimped corporate budgets, are leaving many firms open to attack. The survey found that, in reality, only 8% of companies truly qualify as information security leaders, with many faults detected.
For example, one of the most common faults found was the lack of a security strategy (protection against malware, etc.) to address personal devices used for work purposes in the workplace.
Mark Lobel, a principal in PwC's Advisory practice, told the Financial Times, "Security models of the past decade are no longer effective. Companies...should prepare to play a new game - one that requires advanced skills and strategy to win against emerging threats."