Experts: Chinese Have Hacked ‘Most of Washington’

Thursday, 21 Feb 2013 10:07 AM

By Lisa Barron

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Washington’s most powerful institutions are vulnerable to Chinese cyberspies, and many have already been hacked, security experts are convinced.

“Law firms, think tanks, newspapers — if there’s something of interest, you should assume you’ve been penetrated,” James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which has been hacked in the past, told The Washington Post.

He said there is “no such thing as a secure unclassified network.”

Computer security firm Mandiant this week revealed that an elite military unit of Chinese hackers based in Shanghai is likely behind a series of successful cyber-attacks against U.S. companies and the government, suggesting that cyberspace is the new battleground for national security.

Editor's Note: Trump Says U.S. Losing Economic Power To China, No Longer A Rich Country

Experts say information gained from these intrusions has the potential to give the Chinese valuable insight into the inner working of Washington.

“They’re trying to make connections between prominent people who work at think tanks, prominent donors that they’ve heard of and how the government makes decisions,” Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, which itself has been a victim of hacking, told the Post.

“It’s a sophisticated intelligence gathering effort at trying to make human-network linkages of people in power, whether they be in Congress or the executive branch.”

In recent weeks, major U.S. companies including Facebook, Apple, Twitter, The New York Times and The Washington Post have reported breaches on their computer networks.

Private groups are now intensifying their efforts to fight off the intrusions, hiring specialists to install monitoring systems to keep hackers out.

But experts warn that Congress isn’t using the type of technology and security methods that could prevent sophisticated hacker attacks.

Congress is “overly reliant on perimeter defenses that are ineffective in today’s targeted environment,” Tom Kellermann, vice president of cybersecurity for security software firm Trend Micro, told The Hill newspaper.

He explained that over the years, hackers have learned to bypass traditional security tools, like firewalls and network encryption, to gain access to sensitive networks by unleashing targeted cyber-attacks on an employee’s laptop or another device.

Congress, said Kellermann, lacks its own “appropriate levels of funding for technologies and manpower to deal with this properly.”

He said, “A major corporation has more resources than they do.”

Among the top targets are likely to be leading lawmakers and influential congressional committees, such as the Intelligence and Armed Service Committees, say security experts.

“I would be shocked if there wasn’t deep penetration of multiple committees and the FBI hadn’t already told them about it,” Alan Paller, research director of the SANS Institute, told The Hill, adding that even unclassified discussions about upcoming hearings and witness testimony from defense officials would provide valuable insight for cyber-adversaries on the hunt for intelligence.

Congress has yet to pass cybersecurity legislation. A comprehensive bill failed twice in the Senate last year, with GOP members saying it would introduce new burdensome regulations on businesses.

“No one disputes there’s a problem,” the CSIS’ James Lewis said. “But the politics of the Hill get in the way of there being any solution.”

President Barack Obama meanwhile issued an executive order last week intended to improve information sharing about computer threats between government and industry and establish a framework of cybersecurity best practices.

Editor's Note: Trump Says U.S. Losing Economic Power To China, No Longer A Rich Country

Lawmakers also think Beijing needs to be brought into the discussion. The Chinese have consistently denied allegations of cyber-espionage and disputed the Mandiant report, saying the claims are irresponsible and unsupported by evidence.

Few are satisfied. “The Chinese government’s direct role in cybertheft is rampant, and the problems have grown exponentially,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

“It is crucial that the administration begin bilateral discussions to ensure that Beijing understands that there are consequences for state-sponsored economic espionage.”

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