Hackers in China are the world’s “most active and persistent perpetrators” of economic cyber espionage, and Russian spy agencies are actively seeking to steal U.S. technology, according to a report released by American intelligence services on Thursday.
The 2011 report by the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive (ONCIX) included a focus on cyber threats for the first time since Congress mandated in 1995 that agencies document foreign economic collection and industrial espionage threats.
“Foreign collectors of sensitive economic information are able to operate in cyberspace with relatively little risk of detection by their private sector targets,” concluded the report. “Cyber tools have enhanced the economic espionage threat, and the intelligence community judges the use of such tools is already a larger threat than more traditional espionage methods.”
The report specifically highlights efforts by hackers in China and Russia.
Despite U.S. companies complaining of an “onslaught” of cyber intrusions from computers in China, U.S. officials have not been able to link many of these efforts to the Chinese government, ONCIX researchers said in the report.
Russian intelligence services, meanwhile, have been using both cyber and human efforts to collect economic information and technology, the report found, although it is a "distant second to China".
The report noted that several trends will create new challenges for protecting economic information, including the proliferation of mobile devices and Internet access and shifting attitudes about privacy and data protection. Technological developments mean national boundaries will become less of a deterrent to espionage, the report says.
“Because the United States is a leader in the development of new technologies and a central player in global financial and trade networks, foreign attempts to collect U.S. technological and economic information will continue at a high level and will represent a growing and persistent threat to U.S. economic security,” the researchers wrote.
ONCIX predicted that the growing relationships between American and foreign companies will offer both Chinese and Russian businesses and governments more opportunities to collect information.
At the international London Cyber Conference on Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague backed off in criticizing China, also noting that most cyberattacks can’t be linked directly to the government.
According to The Guardian, British officials privately say they and other Western governments intend to tone down public criticism of China in order to preserve economic cooperation.
But at a hearing on cyber threats on Oct. 4, House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the U.S. and its allies must confront China on its “brazen and wide-scale theft” of intellectual property from commercial competitors around the world.
“I don’t believe that there is precedent in history for such a massive and sustained intelligence effort by a government to blatantly steal commercial data and intellectual property,” he said.