China denies Pentagon cyber-attack

China has denied allegations that its military hacked a Pentagon network in June, the second time in as many weeks that the country has responded to charges of sponsoring computer attacks.

“Some people are making wild accusations against China and wantonly saying the Chinese military attacked the Pentagon’s computer network,” Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said in Beijing, according to the state-controlled Xinhua news service. “These are totally groundless and also reflect a Cold War mentality,” she added.

Jiang was responding to a story published by the Financial Times at the weekend that quoted American officials saying the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was behind the June hack. One source familiar with the incident told the Financial Times there was a “very high level of confidence … trending towards total certainty” that the PLA was responsible.

Other sources told the publication that Chinese hackers probed the Pentagon system for months before the attacks, which forced the U.S. to take the network offline for more than a week.

The Department of Defense played down the attack, but declined to point the finger at any one country or group.

The attack on an unclassified e-mail network in the Office of the Secretary of Defense required that the systems be taken offline, spokesman Bryan Whitman acknowledged, but backup networks kicked in. He would not confirm that China hackers were behind the assault, saying only that it’s often difficult to pinpoint the origin of an intrusion into computer systems.

But the Pentagon did not stand idly by, he said. “Cyber or non-kinetic type threats to military computer networks are viewed as just as real and just as significant as physical or kinetic threats,” Whitman said in a statement. “The department aggressively responds to deter all intrusions to defend what is known as the GIG, the global information grid.”

Just a month before the attack, the Department of Defense had issued a report claiming that the PLA fields first-strike cyber-warfare units whose arsenals include computer viruses they might unleash on enemy networks.

When the Pentagon released its annual report on the state of China’s military strength in late May, the Chinese foreign ministry took exception to its overall tone, although it didn’t mention cyber-warfare specifically.

Last week, Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, raised the same issue during her visit to Beijing after the popular weekly Der Spiegel said systems at several government ministries, including Merkel’s own office, had been infected with spyware planted by Chinese hackers.

In statements made during a press conference last month, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao called the reports of “grave concern” and promised that China would co-operate with Germany in its investigation.

Jiang seemed to echo Wen’s comments. “The Chinese government has always opposed any Internet-wrecking crime, including hacking, and cracked down on it according to the law,” she said.

The Chinese military has been involved with hacking and viruses since at least the early 1990s, according to a 2000 paper written by Timothy Thomas of the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth.

Meanwhile, U.K. government officials have refused to confirm or deny reports that key Whitehall departments have been attacked by computer hackers from the Chinese military.

The Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence have both come under attack by hackers, some of whom are thought to be part of the China’s People’s Liberation Army, according to reports in the Guardian newspaper.

An outage that hit part of the House of Commons computer system last year was attributed by officials to an organized Chinese hacking group, the paper said.

But both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office refused to comment on the reports. “We do not comment on security issues,” a Foreign Office spokesperson said.

The claims of attacks on U.K. government computer networks follow leaked reports of an internal investigation into attacks on the U.S. Department of Defense. Officials have said the inquiry found evidence that the PLA was behind the hacks into the Pentagon network, dubbing the increasing number of attacks on U.S. government systems “Titan Rain.”

– with files from Computerworld U.K. staff

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