China ‘Incredibly Aggressive’ in Cyber Theft: Ex-CIA Chief

China is stealing online information from the United States and feeding the data to homegrown companies for commercial benefit, Michael Hayden, Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency said at the Black Hat Technical Security Conference in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

Michael Hayden, Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
Michael Hayden, Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency

He pointed out that as an intelligence officer, he was "impressed" with the sophistication of Chinese cyber espionage, although spying in cyber space is an activity that all states, including the United States, take part in.

According to Hayden, "We steal secrets, you bet. But we steal secrets that are essential for American security and safety. We don't steal secrets for American commerce, for American profit. There are many other countries in the world that do not so self limit."

Despite the difficulty in tracing the origins of cyber attacks, Hayden believes China is the culprit behind various incidents of data theft.

"The body of evidence makes me quite comfortable and confident in saying that there's an incredibly large amount of this cyber activity coming from China," he told CNBC on the sidelines of the conference.

The retired general, who also served as the Director of the National Security Agency, added that, "I have come to the conclusion that the Chinese, the Chinese state and others in China are incredibly aggressive in the cyber domain, when it comes to the theft of property: state on state or against commercial targets."

Jeff Moss, Chief Security Officer at the California-based Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and founder of the 14-year-old Black Hat conference series, told CNBC that China probably has cyber espionage capabilities on par with the United States though due to the lack of information, much of China's cyber weaponry remains in the realm of speculation.

He added that China should not be singled out as the main culprit in the cyber espionage world because they are not the only ones engaging in this kind of activity.

"Sometimes I feel that China is sort of the bogeyman. It's being held out as the bad guy. And I don't think that's intellectually honest. They're behaving pretty much like everybody else is behaving. And they have internal problems with organized crime just like the United Sates, Europe and Russia have," Moss said.

Hayden, however, believes that China is not an enemy of the United States and that a “non-conflictual” relationship between the two countries would emerge in the future.

According to Hayden, "Theft of intellectual property is not a long term good bet for Chinese economic growth. In fact if you steal enough intellectual property, there won't be enough left to steal because people will stop investing in intellectual development. So over the long term I think you'll probably perceive that ours and China's interests are far more coincident than we might view them to be today."