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Chinese Hackers Attack US Energy Companies

It has emerged this week that cyber-attacks from China have been focusing on utilities and the electric grid, causing the USA to publically accuse China for the first time of instigating and tolerating the attacks.

Cyber-security analysts say the computer-based attacks emanating from China continue unabated despite this now open dialogue between American and Chinese defence departments, and in fact are expanding and focusing more intently on critical American oil, gas and other energy companies.

Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer for the cybersecurity firm Mandiantm, claims that there are three groups of hackers carrying out these attacks: those who are employed directly by the government, those who are affiliated with universities or quasi-government agencies and patriotic hackers who work on their own but direct their attacks against the U.S. and Western interests.

These hackers have differing objectives and a range of tactics for invading companies’ cyber space. Bejtlich claims that the China-backed hackers’ tactics are evolving, and they are more often going after corporate computer systems by breaching software weaknesses, rather than simply trying to get into a network by duping an individual employee. He also said they appear to be increasingly targeting lucrative energy companies.

Bejtlich said some of the state-sponsored hackers appear to moonlight, stealing data from Western companies perhaps as a way of making more money. As long as they don’t present a threat to China or Chinese companies, it is tolerated.

Officials have said that at this point the main threats from China are intelligence espionage and the theft of corporate and high-tech data. But they warn that hackers in China, many of whom work for, are backed by or are tolerated by the Chinese government, are capable of highly sophisticated attacks.

These attacks are continuing against a backdrop of stilted diplomacy between the U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the Chinese government, most recently on a trip by the US politician to Bejing. After three days of meetings with military and civilian leaders, Panetta brought the issue up at every session and come away with little more than agreements to talk again.

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