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Agriculture, Alternative Energy Could Be Chinese Hackers' Next Targets

Perhaps Anthem and Premera breaches were not just about stealing PII, but about researching the ins and outs of Western healthcare systems, CrowdStrike's annual global threat report says.

The official Five-Year Plans laid out by the government of the People's Republic of China guide Chinese hackers' attack campaigns and could be related to the recent burst of breaches at American health insurers, according to researchers at CrowdStrike.

When the Community Health Systems breach of 4.5 million patients' PII was attributed to Chinese attackers in August 2014, it raised eyebrows because at the time it didn't fit the Chinese hackers' profile at all. Since then, Chinese sources have been blamed for similar breaches at Anthem, CareFirst, and Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurers. The trend caused some security researchers to posit that these PII thefts were just the first stage of some other attacks, and that the true targets and objectives were not yet known.

CrowdStrike researchers presented an additional theory in its Global Threat Report released today. "An alternate hypothesis is that the intrusions were executed in an effort to better understand western healthcare systems in order to satisfy the healthcare objectives of China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (FYP)," they wrote.

As the report explains:

...an important element of the 12th Plan is the concept of 'inclusive sustainable
growth.' This includes specific considerations for welfare of the populace, including a commitment to boosting growth in social security, private pensions, and medical insurance. Drilling down into the medical sector, priorities include improvement in medical technology, provision and management of a basic healthcare service for the entire population, and the creation of a healthcare database for 70 percent of urban residents. It also emphasizes foreign investment in developing the Chinese healthcare sector during this time.

With these requirements in mind, it is possible that the network compromises detailed here may have been executed to better understand how other countries have structured their systems and to obtain an understanding of large, multinational healthcare providers to support negotiations for foreign investment. 

But CrowdStrike says the theft of the data could be interpreted differently. The focus on Blue Cross Blue Shield was noteworthy because BCBS operates US Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan. The information from those databases could be particularly dangerous when combined with the data stolen from the US Office of Personnel Management -- a crime also attributed to Chinese sources, who have since been arrested by Chinese law enforcement.

"It is likely that a combination of these two datasets would be extremely valuable to gain deeper insight into the lives and vulnerabilities of federal employees" states the report.

If, however, Chinese threat groups were guided by the 12th Five-Year Plan to attack healthcare organizations, then different sectors need to start preparing for the priorities issued in China's 13th Five-Year Plan, which was released in November and still being finalized.

According to the CrowdStrike report:

These plans typically provide a roadmap for what China will target using cyber means. Alternative energy and domestic technological innovations will have a renewed focus as China looks to transform its standard of living and become less reliant on foreign technology. ...

The combination of China becoming increasingly untrusting of western information technology and a desire to promote its own sectors of industrial manufacturing and retail may lead to a gradual tapering off of targeting against these sectors. However, it will also likely mean increased cyber targeting in areas like agriculture, healthcare, and alternative energy that China deems crucial to promoting the wellbeing of its growing middle class, and where it has the most technological gaps.

CrowdStrike's complete report further details the threat landscape from China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and assorted hacktivists and cyber-extortionists. See the full report here.

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Sara Peters is Senior Editor at Dark Reading and formerly the editor-in-chief of Enterprise Efficiency. Prior that she was senior editor for the Computer Security Institute, writing and speaking about virtualization, identity management, cybersecurity law, and a myriad ... View Full Bio

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