Second China unit accused of cyber crime

Hannah Kuchler and Demetri Sevastopulo
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A second Chinese military unit has been accused of cyber crime, just weeks after the U.S. charged five Chinese officers with alleged economic espionage.

CrowdStrike, a cyber security company, claims to have found a group of hackers operating under the code name "Putter Panda". The Shanghai-based unit is accused of hacking into companies around the world to steal trade secrets, mainly from the U.S. and European satellite, aerospace and communications industries.

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The new report comes after the U.S. Department of Justice charged five Chinese nationals for alleged economic espionage against a handful of U.S. companies. The charges followed a report by Mandiant, another security company, which shone a spotlight on the issue last year. Mandiant was the first to publicly provide detailed information on the location and identity of an alleged military cyber crime unit.

The U.S. has become increasingly worried about Chinese hacking in recent years, particularly since Pentagon and White House computers were accessed. While the U.S. says all countries engage in geopolitical spying, it accuses China of using cyber espionage to steal commercial secrets for the benefit of Chinese companies.

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China denies the claims and has called the U.S. a "high-level hooligan" for bringing the recent charges. It has also accused Washington of hypocrisy following the revelations from Edward Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence contractor who revealed the extensive nature of the National Security Agency's spying program.

Beijing has also ordered state-owned enterprises to cut ties with U.S. consulting companies because of fears they were spying on behalf of the U.S. government. China has so far not commented on the latest accusations from the U.S.

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George Kurtz, chief executive of CrowdStrike, said the "targeted economic espionage campaigns" harmed global competition, and said the allegations were only the "tip of a very large iceberg".

"Those reading the indictment should not conclude that the People's Republic of China hacking campaign is limited to five soldiers in one military unit, or that they solely target the US government and corporations," he said. "Rather, China's decade-long economic espionage campaign is massive and unrelenting."

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CrowdStrike's report, which could not be independently verified by the Financial Times, claims the "Putter Panda" unit started hacking in 2007. It probably works on behalf of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Third General Staff Department 12th Bureau Unit 61486, the company said.

The unit uses a wide range of tools to access foreign computer networks, the report alleges. This includes malicious software, known as malware, focused on exploiting popular applications such as Microsoft Office and Adobe Reader and remote access tools, which it has targeted particularly at the space technology sector, the report said.

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Mr Kurtz said customers who had their technology or source code stolen had later discovered it in Chinese products, sold at a lower cost. Others had seen rival Chinese companies able to manufacture technology in a much shorter time than it takes a western company, which he claimed was because they were able to take shortcuts by stealing information. "There's real dollars associated with this," he said.

"The theft could be useful to spy on us, to understand how our space and communications work," he said. "But what it really comes down to is trying to leapfrog technologies."

The escalation in U.S. efforts to counter alleged widespread theft of information and technology by the Chinese military comes as the number of companies reporting concerns about security to U.S. regulators more than doubled in the past year.