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China acknowledges pursuing these strategies as a key to delivering an initial blow to an opponent's communications and other infrastructure during wartime -- but the techniques are often the same as those used to steal information for commercial use.
China has consistently denied state-sponsored hacking, but experts say the office hours that the cyberspies keep point to a professional army rather than mere hobbyists or so-called "hacktivists" inspired by patriotic passions.
Mandiant noticed that pattern while monitoring attacks on the New York Times last year blamed on another Chinese hacking group it labeled APT12. Hacker activity began at around 8:00 a.m. Beijing time and usually lasted through a standard workday.
The Rand Corporation's Libicki said he wasn't aware of any comprehensive studies, but that in such cases, most activity between malware embedded in a compromised system and the malware's controllers takes place during business hours in Beijing's time zone.
Richard Forno, director of the University of Maryland Baltimore County's graduate cybersecurity program, and David Clemente, a cybersecurity expert with independent analysis center Chatham House in London, said that observation has been widely noted among cybersecurity specialists.
"It would reflect the idea that this is becoming a more routine activity and that they are quite methodical," Clemente said.
The PLA's Third Department is brimming with resources, according to studies commissioned by the U.S. government, with 12 operation bureaus, three research institutes, and an estimated 13,000 linguists, technicians and researchers on staff. It's further reinforced by technical teams from China's seven military regions spread across the country, and by the military's vast academic resources, especially the PLA University of Information Engineering and the Academy of Military Sciences.
The PLA is believed to have made cyber warfare a key priority in its war-fighting capabilities more than a decade ago. Among the few public announcements of its development came in a May 25, 2011 news conference by Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng, in which he spoke of developing China's "online" army.
"Currently, China's network protection is comparatively weak," Geng told reporters, adding that enhancing information technology and `'strengthening network security protection are important components of military training for an army." (continued...)
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