Chinese Hackers Stole U.S. Military Secrets

Cyber exploitation campaign obtained information relating to 29 weapon systems and 21 areas of cutting-edge research.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

May 28, 2013

4 Min Read

The Syrian Electronic Army: 9 Things We Know

The Syrian Electronic Army: 9 Things We Know

(click image for larger view)
The Syrian Electronic Army: 9 Things We Know

Advanced weapons systems including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and V-22 Osprey, as well as cutting-edge military technology relating to satellite communications, directed energy weapons and missile defense, are among the designs reportedly stolen by Chinese hackers from U.S. government agencies and defense contractors.

Those findings -- first reported by The Washington Post -- were contained in a nonpublic version of a report prepared in January 2013 for the Pentagon. The "Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat" report was written by the Defense Science Board, which is a committee of civilian experts appointed to advise the Department of Defense.

All told, information relating to 29 weapon systems and 21 areas of different advanced research was reportedly stolen, according to a confidential version of the report. "The scale is shocking," tweeted information security researcher Alan Woodward, who's a professor in the department of computing at the University of Surrey.

[ Learn the latest on the state of enterprise IT security. Read 2013 Strategic Security Survey. ]

"These are all very critical weapons systems, critical to our national security," Mark Stokes, executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, a think tank that focuses on security issues in Asia, told the Post.

A public version of the report that was previously released didn't include the list of compromised weapons systems and technology. They were named in a table titled "Expanded partial list of DoD system designs and technologies compromised via cyber exploitation." Some of the stolen information relating to weapon systems and military technologies -- such as a 2007 hack that compromised F-35 Joint Strike Fighter information -- had been previously disclosed.

The public version of the published report didn't detail when the information was stolen, how much of it was confidential or whether the information had been stolen from U.S. defense contractors or government agencies.

According to Adam Meyers, head of intelligence for security firm Crowdstrike, China's corporate espionage campaign may parallel the country's five-year plan for modernizing its infrastructure, including building out more deep-sea military capabilities, the New Yorker recently reported. To support deep-sea operations, China would be seeking better satellite technology, torpedoes, naval antennas, radar, electromagnetic aircraft launch systems for carriers and a naval ballistic-missile defense system. All of those technologies are included on the Defense Science Board's partial list of stolen weapon systems and technologies.

What's the risk from the information being stolen? Beyond helping China advance its military capabilities more quickly, the stolen information "may impose severe consequences for U.S. forces engaged in combat," according to the publicly released version of the Defense Science Board report, because it might give adversaries an advantage. For example, reports in 2007 suggested that when Israeli warplanes entered Syrian airspace during an air raid, a computer hack -- perhaps aided by a hardcoded backdoor in the radar systems -- was used to temporarily deactivate Syria's entire radar system, thus allowing the warplanes to escape detection.

The sheer quantity of military weapon system information and technology designs that have been stolen by Chinese hackers may be behind the Obama administration's increasingly forceful denouncements of Chinese hacking operations. But some experts on China believe that diplomacy alone won't solve the problem. Last week, the bipartisan Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property recommended that Congress authorize businesses to strike back and reclaim stolen data from foreign networks. Last month Congress pursued economic sanctions by passing a bill barring government purchases of IT equipment from any organization affiliated with China, without prior approval from the FBI.

In other Chinese hacking news, Australia's ABC Television reported Monday -- without citing any sources -- that an information security attack attributed to China had compromised blueprints and physical security information relating to a new $600 million facility being built by Australia's Secret Intelligence Service. According to an Australian security expert, the stolen plans would enable spies to more easily know which parts of the facility to monitor, if attempting to track intelligence activities.

Australia's foreign minister, Bob Carr, said the country is "very alive" to information security attacks, but declined to address the alleged Chinese espionage operation, reported the BBC. "I won't comment on matters of intelligence and security for the obvious reason: we don't want to share with the world and potential aggressors what we know about what they might be doing, and how they might be doing it," he said.

China is Australia's biggest trade partner.

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights