As few as 12 Chinese groups, largely backed or directed by the government, commit the bulk of the China-based cyberattacks, stealing critical data from U.S. companies and government agencies, according to U.S. cybersecurity analysts and experts.
The aggressive but stealthy attacks, which have stolen billions of dollars in intellectual property and data, often carry distinct signatures, enabling U.S. officials to link them to certain hacker teams.
Analysts say the U.S. often gives the attackers unique names or numbers and at times can tell where the hackers are and even who they may be.
Sketched out by analysts who have worked with U.S. companies and the government on computer intrusions, the details illuminate recent claims by U.S. intelligence officials about the escalating cyberthreat emanating from China.
The widening expanse of targets, coupled with the expensive and sensitive technologies they are losing, is putting increased pressure on the U.S. to take a much harder stand against the communist giant.
It is largely impossible for the U.S. to prosecute hackers in China because that requires reciprocal agreements between the two countries, and it is always difficult to provide ironclad proof that the hacking came from specific people.
Several analysts described the Chinese attacks, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigations and to protect the privacy of clients. China routinely has rejected allegations of cyberspying and says it also is a target.
“Industry is already feeling that they are at war,” said James Cartwright, a retired Marine general and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
A recognized expert on cyber-issues, Gen. Cartwright has come out strongly in favor of increased U.S. efforts to hold China and other countries accountable for the cyberattacks that come from within their borders.
“Right now we have the worst of worlds,” Gen. Cartwright said. “If you want to attack me, you can do it all you want, because I can’t do anything about it. It’s risk-free, and you’re willing to take almost any risk to come after me.”
The U.S., he said, “needs to say, if you come after me, I’m going to find you, I’m going to do something about it. It will be proportional, but I’m going to do something … and if you’re hiding in a third country, I’m going to tell that country you’re there. If they don’t stop you from doing it, I’m going to come and get you.”
Cyber-experts say companies are frustrated that the U.S. government isn’t doing enough to pressure China to stop the attacks or go after hackers in that country.
Much like during the Cold War with Russia, officials say the U.S. needs to make it clear that there will be repercussions for cyberattacks.
The government “needs to do more to increase the risk,” said Jon Ramsey, head of the counterthreat unit at the Atlanta-based Dell SecureWorks, a computer-security consulting company.
“In the private sector, we’re always on defense. We can’t do something about it, but someone has to. There is no deterrent not to attack the U.S.,” Mr. Ramsey said.