Report: China is biggest cyber threat to US, says congressional panel

Cyber warriors with Chinese military and intelligence agencies have made great strides in their ability to attack "specialized targets" such as American military surveillance and reconnaissance systems, members of the congressionally-mandated U.S.- China Economic and Security Review Commission said in the report. 

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These cyber operatives are Chinese civilians working for the military, according to the report, with many of the hackers holding day jobs in China as computer and information technology specialists. 

“Chinese penetrations of defense systems threaten the U.S. military’s readiness and ability to operate," a draft version of the commission's findings state, according to Bloomberg

The final version of the committee's review of China's cyberattack efforts is due to lawmakers next Wednesday, Bloomberg reports. 

These advances in cyber warfare are mainly focused on so-called "zero day" type attacks, which are quick strikes against vulnerable networks that cannot be rapidly addressed or countered, according to the report. 

The quick-strike cyberattacks against various networks across the globe have increased in recent years, making the Asian superpower "the most threatening actor in cyberspace,” commission members wrote. 

While China has clearly accelerated its efforts to wage cyber war against the U.S. or other near-peer competitors, the Pentagon has also ramped up its efforts to take the fight to potential adversaries in the virtual realm. 

In October, for the first time, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly admitted the U.S. has the capability to go on offensive against computer networks and the infrastructure of its enemies. 

"Our mission is to defend this nation. We defend. We deter. And if called upon, we take decisive action," Panetta said during his keynote address to the Business Executives For National Security conference in New York that month. 

The disclosure of these preemptive or retaliatory acts of cyber warfare by American forces represent a break from DOD's long-standing position that U.S. forces are focused solely on defensive measures in cyber warfare. 

Prior to his Panetta's speech, Pentagon officials have remained virtually silent on the department's ability to wage cyber war against nations like China and non-state actors like al Qaeda. 

But aside from DOD's offensive capabilities, more is needed -- particularly in the area of legislation -- to stymie the growing Chinese threat in cyberspace, according to the commission. 

Congressional lawmakers need to draft a new slate of economic sanctions to crack down on subsidies coming from Chinese industry to support Beijing's cyber warfare operations, the report states. 

The sanctions, according to the report should "penalize specific companies found to engage in, or otherwise benefit from, industrial espionage," characterizing those activities illegal in the United States.