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China has been linked to a number of high-profile breaches.

Google Inc., operator of the Internet’s most popular search engine, disclosed two sophisticated attacks against its systems that it believes were launched from China. The disclosures touched a nerve for technologists, government officials and human rights advocates alike because of the unique roles Google and the Chinese government have in shaping what is seen _ and not seen _ on the Internet by citizens of the world’s most populous country.

In one attack, some of Google’s intellectual property was stolen in a computer attack that also targeted at least 20 other large companies. And earlier this year Mountain View, Calif.-based Google said it believes hackers in China broke into the Gmail accounts of several hundred people, including senior U.S. government officials, military personnel and political activists.

The report also noted other incidents linked to China:

_ Last year computer security firm Mandiant reported that data was stolen from a Fortune 500 manufacturing company during business negotiations when the company was trying to buy a Chinese company.

_ Earlier this year, McAfee traced an intrusion to an Internet protocol address in China and said intruders took data from global oil, energy and petrochemical companies.

While officials could not pin down an exact economic cost to the U.S. government and businesses, they said the losses are extremely significant.

“(China‘s) continued theft of sensitive economic information is a threat to our national security, hurts American businesses and workers, and causes incalculable harm to global economy,” said the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich. “This once again underscores the need for America’s allies across Asia and Europe to join forces to pressure Beijing to end this illegal behavior.”

The escalating rhetoric carries its own political risks, particularly as the U.S. has tried to improve relations with China and Russia. China is a key lender and trading partner, and the U.S. has relied on Beijing to put pressure on its longtime ally North Korea to negotiate over its nuclear program.

Russia, meanwhile, is a key vote in the U.N. Security Council, particularly on issues involving Iran sanctions and nuclear arms reduction.

Both were Cold War enemies whose motives and government workings are often purposely opaque to American partners or competitors.

“We have to start being more confrontational,” said Lewis, adding that the U.S. needs to have a more muscular trade policy and make sure that World Trade Organization rules are observed.

The report said foreign intelligence services have used independent hackers as proxies, thereby giving the agencies “plausible deniability.”

And it also accused the Chinese of being “the world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage.”

Attacks from Russia are a “distant second” to those from China, according to the report. But it said Moscow’s intelligence services are “conducting a range of activities to collect economic information and technology from U.S. targets.”

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