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Are China’s economic ambitions the reason why cyber-attacks from China are rising?

By Naomi Rovnick
ChinaPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The quarterly “State of the Internet” report from consultancy Akamai Technologies (we’ve also reprised some of its other findings) confirms something about China that the US government has already flagged: The nation is a huge and growing source of cyber-attacks.

As this table from Akamai’s report shows, the share of the world’s “attack traffic” originating from China more than doubled in the third quarter of last year over the previous three months.

Chinese cyber attacks are rising

So why is China such a huge source of cyber disruption? And what could explain the recent jump in activity?

Akamai doesn’t offer reasons, but one possibility could be the new Chinese administration’s drive to turn China into a leader in technology. The Beijing government believes the country has developed too slowly in high tech innovation, and wants to create five world-beating technology giants. In its latest annual report to America’s Congress last November, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) line-height: 19px;”>; links between China’s technological ambitions and what it suspects are government agencies’ and state owned enterprises’ increasing tendencies towards cyber crime.

The USCC report (pdf, p.157) said that because of the level of “cyber exploitation against U.S. firms, questions arise about the extent to which the perpetrators, or their beneficiaries, ultimately commercialize stolen industrial information.” line-height: 19px;”>;It then quoted Richard Bejtlich, the chief security officer of US IT security company Mandiant, who alleged Chinese hackers were infiltrating US telecoms and IT services companies and that information theft was being used to outbid American companies on government contracts.

Bejtlich told the committee:

‘We see them [Chinese hackers] taking the technology from these [compromised] telecom companies to improve their own capabilities and then also to come out with low-cost competitors who can then outbid everyone else on these . . . national infrastructure projects.’

Such corporate espionage may be nothing new. Back in 2004, Cisco Systems accused Chinese technology giant Huawei of misappropriating its source code. (Huawei denies this ever happened.)

But stealing technology for commercial gain may not be the only reason for Chinese cyber attacks. Protecting domestic industry from foreign competition could be another. The USCC report also claims that foreign companies operating in China are being hacked for commercial secrets that could strengthen their Chinese competitors:

Firms in virtually all sectors can hold sensitive plans, negotiating positions, and other information from which competitors would benefit. For example, one unidentified firm negotiating to open a plant in China reportedly had real estate and development pricing information compromised through the penetration of a third party.

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