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Cyberattacks by Unit 61398 resume

In a strategy dubbed "naming and shaming" by the media, the Obama administration bet that confronting China over cyberattacks traced to the Asian superpowers military --- the People's Liberation Army (PLA) -- would cause the nation to stop its brazen cyberlooting.  Now evidence is mounting that the strategy is failing, and that China has returned to its old ways, with the U.S. left as the helpless victim.

I. China Bullies "Weak" American Cybersecurity

Chinese cyberattacks may have been ongoing for a decade or more, but began to intensify in 2008 when President Barack Obama took office.  Those attacks led military officials to begin to target China with accusations, accusations that China, of course, denied.  China admits to having a large "cyber army", but claims it only uses the highly skilled unit for "self defense".

Meanwhile attacks on the private sector from Chinese IPs began to rise.  Many of the attacks appeared politically motivated, while others appeared aimed at stealing intellectual property, financial secrets, and military information.

In 2008, CNN reported repelling a major attack from Chinese IPs in the wake of a story about Tibet.  In 2009, Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMTgrappled with sophisticated intrusions from Chinese cyberspies.  Lockheed claimed that the spies did not successfully steal secrets, but soon after in 2011 China shocked U.S. officials fielding a fully function stealth fighter; prior to the hacks U.S. officials believed China lacked this technology.

Red Daw
Chinese attacks intensified around 2008. [Image Source: ScreenRant]

2011 marked a marked intensification of attacks from China on both the U.S. private and government sectors. Chinese hackers struck at online petition site after a petition was launched to free an imprisoned Chinese artist.  That same year Chinese hackers struck Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Gmail service, looking to scoop the accounts of Tibetan dissidents.  China's state-run newspaper mouthpiece then proceeded to threaten Google for stating the obvious -- that the attacks originated from Chinese IPs.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was hacked with Chinese IPs communicating with infected thermostats and internet printers.  The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration was been hacked multiple times.  U.S. Embassies were attacked. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) was targeted by persistent attacksagain traced to China.  The White House's own networks were even attacked.

In a pair of publications Intel Corp. (INTC) subsidiary McAfee, a security industry giant, accused China either directly or indirectly of a massive "cyberwar" campaign.

II. Obama Administration's Noisy Rhetoric Yields Short-Lived Truce

President Obama responded in early 2009 ordering a security review.  Then in June 2009 he created a new "cyber command" department in the DoD to handle cyber defense.  But as the Chinese threat grew, DoD and intelligence agencies in the U.S. continued to struggle.  U.S. Cyber Command was understaffed with only around 500 "cyber-soldiers".  And an April 2011 study suggested a third of cybersecurity "experts" at the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) were incompetent.

Unable to defend itself with cyber-might, the Obama administration turned its focus to defense via rhetoric.  In May 2011 the DoD warned cyberattacks could be construed as acts of war.  In March 2012 U.S. National Security Agency director Gen. Keith Alexander testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee, that the Chinese were destroying the U.S. economy with hacks.

The Obama adminstrations vowed this year to no longer be week and submissive towards China after confirming the PLA was behind cyberattacks. [Image Source: Reuters]

But the President himself was mostly silent until this year, when a series of attacks on The New York TimesBloomberg, The WSJ, and the U.S. Federal Reserve.  Around that same time security officials with the research firm Mandiat finally pinned the attacks on an elite group of PLA hackers -- dubbed Unit 61398 -- which were based out of a government-guarded 12-story white high-rise in Shanghai.  That report was confirmed by government officials earlier this month, which led to China responding that the U.S. was "the real ‘hacking empire.'"

Amid the confirmations that the PLA was behind the victimization of the U.S., President Obama responded to these developments with his toughest rhetoric yet, which led to counter-accusations from China.  The tough rhetoric from the Commander-in-chief seemed to work, though; Unit 61398 fell silent for nearly three months from February into May.

Top PLA hackers with handles like “DOTA,” “SuperHard” and “UglyGorilla" disappeared as their online footprints were purged.  Chinese hackers even began to remotely unplug the intrusion toolkits they had installed on 3,000 identified systems in the U.S.

III. Chinese are Back at It

But according to a report in The New York Times, that quiet armistice is over, and China has returned to its old ways, marking the failure of the administration's "naming and shaming" strategy.  With the U.S. unable to offer up any real consequences, the report suggests that the PLA sees no compelling reason to bow to its foe's hollow rhetoric, instead gleefully returning to battering the "helpless" U.S.

PLA hackers resumed their attacks on the U.S. this month after a three month armistice.
[Image Source: Unknown]

Kevin Mandia, the chief executive of Mandiant, warns, "They dialed it back for a little while, though other groups that also wear uniforms didn’t even bother to do that.  I think you have to view this as the new normal."

A source in the Obama administration is quoted in the report as expressing grim resignation that a resumption would occur, commenting, "This is something we are going to have to come back at time and again with the Chinese leadership have to be convinced there is a real cost to this kind of activity."

IV. How Can the Administration Respond?

The question is what kind of consequences the administration can really muster.  

The U.S. economy remains deeply dependent on China, to the extent that any sort of serious trade sanctions could plunge the nation's fragile economy into recession. At the same time, the military and intelligence community, having alienated most of the nation's skilled hackers with belligerent prosecution policies (versus China who actively recruits black hats), appears helpless to mount any substantial offense or defense.

And to boot, the administration is struggling over a deluge of domestic scandals ranging from drones, to U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), to seizures of Associated Press phone records.

Still the administration's security advisor, Thomas Donilon, is expected to work what little leverage he has in a visit to China this month.

President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder
Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a former ambassador to China, and President Obama's former director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair are reportedly drawing up a series of executive orders the President could use to attempt to "punish" China for continued hacking.  Mr. Blair is quoted as saying, "Jawboning alone won’t work.  Something has to change China’s calculus."

About the only positive development, thus far, has been independent efforts on apparently putting a face to the handle of some of the PLA hackers.  A blog was traced to UglyGorilla -- real name Wang Dong -- who between 2006 and 2009 wrote about his experiences with the PLA, bemoaning low pay, long hours and instant ramen meals.

Such positive identifications could allow the U.S. to step up international pressure on China, even as its own efforts continue to struggle.

Source: The New York Times

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RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By Camikazi on 5/20/2013 12:39:25 PM , Rating: 5
When was the last time MS got hacked and got all their information and code stolen? Windows might have problems (and not as many as you seem to believe) but MS data centers are rock solid and damn near impossible to break into, now when did you get into IT stuff?

RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By Argon18 on 5/20/13, Rating: -1
RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By JasonMick on 5/20/2013 2:17:27 PM , Rating: 5
When's the last time? Um. Last week? IE flaw that allows remote total takeover of the machine.
Thought I'd chime in here.

The flaws (I assume) you're referring to lie in IE6 and certain unpatched versions of IE 7/8. IE is currently on IE 10.

Microsoft has end-of-lifed IE 6 and practically begged customers to stop using it:

But some users defiantly insist on persisting to use it.

IE 6 came out in 2001 -- twelve years ago. It's hardly Microsoft's fault that it no longer is patching it. Maybe you should go complain to Apple that your first generation iPhone is no longer supporting the latest security updates and OS versions from Apple -- after all, it's only HALF AS OLD.
I've been in IT since 1977. And I know enough about Microsoft products, to know they are the Happy Meal of the IT world; cheap, crappy, and only a child chooses it.
Doubtful... most IT people I know wouldn't make such ignorant statements.

While it's true nothing beats a hardened distribution of Linux, Microsoft's security has dramatically improved over the last decade or so as they've woken up to security risks.

Today they have a relatively good track record and generally patch quicker, even if they struggled in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Today most security flaws in Windows come from the same place they do on other platforms (like OS X and iOS) -- third party software like Oracle's Java and Adobe's PDFs.

But unlike some totalitarian companies (like Apple) who insist on (sluggishly) pushing out patches first hand, Microsoft allows third parties to directly deliver patches; hence you could argue that Linux and Microsoft share this advantage security-wise while Apple is by far the worst (as the only major PC OS maker who refuses to allow third parties to directly deliver patches).

RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By bug77 on 5/20/2013 3:50:35 PM , Rating: 2
The flaws (I assume) you're referring to lie in IE6 and certain unpatched versions of IE 7/8. IE is currently on IE 10.

Care to wager a bet on which version do government agencies mandate? :D

RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By drycrust3 on 5/20/2013 5:29:06 PM , Rating: 2
IE 6 came out in 2001 -- twelve years ago. It's hardly Microsoft's fault that it no longer is patching it.

Part of the problem is that in China there is a huge amount of legacy "bootleg" software installed on computers, and when purchasing a new computer it is very easy to obtain a computer with bootlegged Microsoft software installed on it.
There are two problems this creates:
1) Microsoft only does the most critical security updates on these computers; and
2) As I understand it (I haven't used Windows for since 2008), Microsoft won't allow downloads to non Windows Genuine Advantage computers.
While Microsoft is perfectly entitled to do these things, there is another problem which needs to be pointed out, which is that the Chinese antivirus software isn't very good.
Thus the average Chinese computer is far less secure than the average American computer.
The consequence is that if anyone in the world wanted to find an insecure computer somewhere to do a denial of service attack on a wealthy country, e.g. America, it isn't hard to imagine that ones in China are the ones that would be used.
The question, then, is would it be in America's best interests for Microsoft to do non-critical security updates, allow downloads of better browsers than IE6, and provide better antivirus software than currently used in China?

RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By Samus on 5/20/2013 11:26:10 PM , Rating: 2
The Linux or OSX arguments don't apply. Running IE6 is the equivalent of Linux Kernel pre-v2.x or OSX 10.1

I'm sure those "alternatives" would be far more secure, especially with their open-source nature.

RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By drycrust3 on 5/21/2013 3:43:49 PM , Rating: 2
This still doesn't answer the question of whether Microsoft's approach to updates for non-Windows Genuine Advantage computers has actually been to the detriment of US national security.

RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By Flunk on 5/21/2013 10:16:42 AM , Rating: 5
Doubtful... most IT people I know wouldn't make such ignorant statements.

You're be surprised how many ignorant dinosaurs are still around in IT. Most of them support small companies and talking to them makes you want to smash your head into a wall.

Doing something for a long time doesn't mean you do it well.

RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By BRB29 on 5/20/2013 2:49:36 PM , Rating: 4
When's the last time? Um. Last week? IE flaw that allows remote total takeover of the machine. I've been in IT since 1977. And I know enough about Microsoft products, to know they are the Happy Meal of the IT world; cheap, crappy, and only a child chooses it.

i was going to say you were a dinosaur that's stuck in his way until I saw your previous post.

Did you just use 'Microsoft' and 'secure' in the same sentence? LMAO. Let me guess, you're new to this IT stuff?

You sure don't sound like someone who's that old.

I can't confirm but you are probably exaggerating your IT experience or you are very immature.

I don't think anyone can ever say MS products are cheap. A lot of people will agree it's crappy. But when comparing to other solutions, it may be crappy but still better. Unless you want to nitpick and say win8 is a failure, winME is a failure, etc... they were but there's more success in other fronts.

I still can't find an alternative to replace Office. Google docs can only do so much.

RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By Labotomizer on 5/20/2013 5:03:43 PM , Rating: 3
So, you've been in the IT field since 1977 but you're still just a systems admin? And the best you can do is advise a CIO at a relatively small company? Your skills must be out of this world.

Linux isn't as secure as everyone makes it out to be. Sure, you can harden it if you invest the time and effort and want to cause yourself serious inconvenience every time you go to use it. But the majority of distros aren't like that out of the box. There are also more critical vulnerabilities per year in your average distro than in Windows.

Linux has plenty of uses. But the statement "Linux is better than Windows" is incredibly stupid and short-sighted. Of course, "Windows is better than Linux" is equally stupid. They both have their uses. As does OS X, BSD, Unix and every other OS out there. The difference between people like you, who have managed to progress to an "admin" in 35 years, and people like me who is a Sr. Systems Engineer in 14 years is knowing what is the right answer and when. And not being so narrow-minded. The world isn't black and white. But it sounds like it's too late for you to learn that.

Let me know if you need me to take you to school some more. I'm always happy to help.

RE: Privatize the datacenters.
By Strunf on 5/21/2013 10:52:12 AM , Rating: 2
Worst one of their Cloud servers broke down a couple times, on one of those data was lost, as for being near impossible to break into, it depends on the manpower what is impossible to you may be quite easy to someone else, and maybe the MS servers didn't got data stolen cause they don't hold sensitive data yet.

Besides with the MS services you are just moving the problem and I'm not sure it will help anyways, if the users have to access the server to get the data (as a normal procedure) then the hacker will just have to infect the user PC, but wait isn't this how they normally operate anyways?...

"Well, there may be a reason why they call them 'Mac' trucks! Windows machines will not be trucks." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

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