Chinese Internet hackers are widespread and difficult to trace, and even though the government and military have benefited from their expertise, sometimes using hackers has backfired on Beijing, The Wall Street Journal
"I think there is a cost when hackers go after targets that are too sensitive or get involved in a crisis and the government can't control the signaling," Adam Segal, a China and cybersecurity scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told the newspaper.
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Last week, the United States indicted five Chinese army officials
on charges of hacking into American nuclear, metal and solar companies to steal trade secrets. But some of the more sophisticated hackers observed by U.S. officials and security firms work as freelancers, not directly for the government, and their activities are more difficult to control.
They are the ones believed to have broken into major companies servers, including Google Inc. and Lockheed Martin Corp., officials allege.
The Chinese government says that while it doesn't condone hacking, it also can't enforce laws against the uncontrollable hacking subculture. While there is a "political gain to being able to say 'we can't control all attacks,'" Segal said, experts agree that China's hackers are hard to follow.
The hackers do sometimes take orders from the military. At at other times, they work for Chinese companies seeking competitive advantages, adding to the confusion.
Meanwhile, China denies its military officials are involved in hacking, and has suspended cybersecurity talks, with one spokesman for China's Ministry of National Defense likening the indictment to evidence of weapons of mass destruction that was produced by the United States before its 2003 invasion of Iraq.
"With its network technology and infrastructure, the U.S. has a unique superiority," said Geng Yansheng at a ministry news conference this month. "It wouldn't be difficult for them to fabricate evidence."
But researchers believe the Chinese government may not know when its military personnel are using hackers or the military's own high-tech systems for illegal activities, according to the Journal.
The Chinese government also is involved in state-sponsored hacking, conducted under the Third Department of the PLA's General Staff Department, said to be similar to the U.S. National Security Agency. The 5 military officials indicted last week are part of a group, "Comment Crew" which operates in the Third Department and monitors the United States.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials say they are tracking between 20 to 30 Chinese hacking groups, including one that infiltrated Google's Gmail service in 2009 in an attack Google officials initially blamed on one of its own employees.
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