Chinese arrest of hackers not a first

Chinese arrest of hackers not a first
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The recent arrests of several Chinese hackers by the Beijing government may not be the first such apprehensions, records suggest. 

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 Although the arrests were reported to be “unprecedented,” a report unearthed by security blogger Brian Krebs indicates that U.S. authorities were successful in convincing Beijing to take similar action at least once before.

“As a result of a [NASA Office of the Inspector General] investigation and lengthy international coordination efforts, a Chinese national was detained in December 2010 by Chinese authorities for violations of Chinese Administrative Law,” NASA Inspector General Paul Martin told a House oversight committee in 2012, Krebs reported.

“This case resulted in the first confirmed detention of a Chinese national for hacking activity targeting U.S. Government agencies. Seven NASA systems, many containing export-restricted technical data, were compromised by the Chinese national,” Martin added.

According to 2010 semi-annual report from NASA's Office of the Inspector General obtained by The Hill, the agency found that a Chinese national had infiltrated the agency's systems through a government contractor's website. 

"When NASA employees visited the site, they were redirected to a Taiwanese server," the report reads. "The investigation found that seven NASA systems had been compromised, leaving a significant amount of data vulnerable to unauthorized access and theft."
 
Neither Martin’s statement — part of testimony on NASA’s IT security —  nor the semiannual report indicate whether the Chinese government prosecuted the hacker.

The most recent arrests were also at the request of the U.S. government, sources told The Washington Post, and came from a list drawn up by Obama administration officials that identified cyber thieves who stole trade secrets from U.S. firms to pass along to Chinese competitors.

They came a week or two before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tense state visit last month, causing some to question whether the action was a simple public relations stunt.

Officials are now waiting to see whether the Chinese government will go forward with prosecutions, or whether the arrests will be nothing more than an empty gesture intended to diffuse tensions with the United States in advance of the state visit.

At the time of the visit, the White House was under fierce pressure from lawmakers to sanction Chinese companies suspected of commercial espionage.

The U.S. has not laid aside the possibility of sanctions, but policy experts say the administration will likely wait to see if the Chinese government holds up its end of the bargain.

“Particularly now that we have reached this agreement with the Chinese, we should hold them at their word and see what they’re willing to do,” one administration official told the Post. “We have maintained all along that what we want to see is actions.”

The U.S. and China reached an agreement on commercial hacking during the visit in which the two sides promised that they would not conduct or support the online theft of intellectual property.

Part of that agreement involves increased cooperation in law enforcement efforts.

“We have made significant progress in agreeing to how our law enforcement and investigators are going to work together, how we’re going to exchange information, how we are going to go after individuals or entities who are engaging in cyber crimes or cyberattacks,” President Obama said in a news conference announcing the agreement.

“We have already, and in the future, we will still, through the law enforcement authorities, maintain communication and coordination on this matter, and appropriately address them,” President Xi added.

Some policy experts say this pledge alone marks a significant shift in Beijing’s approach to cyber relations with the United States.

“The importance of China committing to answer our calls when we say, ‘We’ve traced a cyberattack back to a Chinese IP address’ — in the past, they just ignored those requests as part of their deniability,” Robert Knake, the former White House director for cybersecurity policy at the National Security Council, told The Hill when the agreement was announced. 

“Now they’re saying, ‘We’re going to assist you.’ That is a massive, massive change.”

Critics have suggested that the overall agreement is unenforceable.

“We’ll know if this works if attacks continue and China assists in the investigations — that’s the proof in the pudding, so to speak,” Knake added.