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Attacks/Breaches

5/29/2013
06:26 AM
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Chinese Cyberspies Access U.S. Military Weapons System Designs

Confidential report to DoD officials reveals breadth -- and reality -- of Chinese cyberespionage operations against U.S. military interests

Chinese hackers reportedly have gained access to the designs for more than 24 U.S. weapons systems, including missile systems, combat aircraft, and ships, in a breach that could dramatically boost Chinese weapon systems and dilute the U.S.'s military edge over China.

A confidential report by the Defense Science Board on behalf of U.S. military officials listed specific U.S. weapon systems designs that had been compromised by the Chinese cyberespionage actors, including the advanced Patriot missile system (PAC-3), Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems for shooting down ballistic misses, the Aegis ballistic-missile defense system, the F/A-18 fighter jet, the V-22 Osprey, the Black Hawk helicopter, the Littoral Combat ship, and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, according to The Washington Post, which first broke the story.

The Defense Science Board report neither specifies the time frame for the breaches nor whether the Chinese hackers got the information via U.S. government networks or defense contractors or subcontractors, according to The Post. A public version of the report published in January said the U.S. is not prepared for cyberwar and called out the "consequences" of escalating cyberespionage against the nation.

Chinese government officials have consistently denied executing cyberespionage campaigns against the U.S. government and companies here. But President Obama is likely to discuss the issue with Chinese President Xi Jiping in their upcoming meeting in California, according to The Post.

Cyberespionage by China against U.S. government and commercial entities has been an ongoing problem and is not likely to go away anytime soon, even as the U.S. increases pressure on China.

"While it is not new that Chinese hackers have penetrated a number of companies and government agencies, this news is indicative of the types of information which has probably been gleaned from those penetrations," says Ken Silva, senior vice president of cybersecurity, ManTech International. "At ManTech/HBGary, we have seen the theft of information from commercial and government organization for many years. But this incident is a clear example of the national security implications of such breaches. It is increasingly more evident that defensive measures don't always work, and organizations need to assume there has been, or will be a breach and put the proper tools and procedures in place to detect and deal with it quickly."

James C. Foster, CEO and founder of Riskive, says this is an example of the new normal. "There will never be any country taking credit for this type of attack. Nation states will never raise their hands and say, 'I am responsible for this attack,'" Foster says. "In the world of cyberconfrontation, we've entered a new realm of 'deniable warfare.' It's an era of no one owning accountability -- and its going to take a new way of thinking and threat management to do something about this type of cyberwarfare."

The report on the weapon systems design breaches demonstrates how the DoD's efforts to quell cyberespionage have failed, security experts say. "The attacks are obviously a concern, but the bigger issue is the ineffectiveness of the efforts thus far. In the report, the DoD says their 'numerous' efforts are fragmented and unaligned. As a result, they've declared that they are not prepared to defend against this threat," says Dwayne Melancon, chief technology officer for Tripwire.

Melancon says the report's finding that "it will take years for the department to build an effective response" basically means the DoD's cyberdefenses aren't cutting it. "The only way to interpret this statement is that DoD’s approach to cybersecurity is fundamentally broken," he says.

The Post's full list of the compromised weapons is here.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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