For the first time Beijing officially admits that it has special cyber units in its military and intelligence sectors. Up until now China always dismissed any allegations that it has a cyber army that can be used in targeted attacks on networks, as well as critical infrastructure such as gas pipelines and power grids. For years many suspected that China’s government was involved in hacking attacks on U.S. corporations to leak trade secrets, but Beijing never admitted its involvement and denied it had a cyber army.
The Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis says “This is the first time we’ve seen an explicit acknowledgement of the existence of China’s secretive cyber-warfare forces from the Chinese side”. A month ago Beijing would have still denied the existence of its cyber army, but after the People’s Liberation Army put out the latest publication of The Science of Military Strategy, the secret was exposed and for the first time China openly talked about its army of hackers and network attack capabilities.
It is not surprising that China has these cyber units, it is only surprising that they finally admitted it. Back in 2014, U.S. officials were able to identify and file criminal charges against five Chinese military officials for hacking and spying on several U.S. companies. The idea was to get into possession of trade secrets to help Chinese companies grow on the global market. Beijing denied these allegations.
According to The Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, China has three types of cyber warfare units: military forces trained in network attacks and defense, experts from civil societies and external entities, ie. hacker mercenaries. All of these are being used in espionage on U.S. companies to steal their secrets, which is one of the reasons for the tension between Washington and Beijing. Now that Beijing admitted the accusations, the situation could get worse.
China’s cyber units are likely also being used to silence protestors and bring down websites that help people gain access to independent information by bypassing the Great Firewall of China. Said activists are under huge DDoS attacks as of late.
China is not the only country with strong military cyber forces. Russia for example used cyber warfare tactics to disrupt communication systems and websites during its invasion of Crimea in 2014. Similar practices by Russian military have been observed in Georgia in 2008. While the U.S., China and Russia have the most advanced cyber units, other countries are also actively working on building cyber warfare forces, such as Iran and North Korea. This will likely soon lead to more cyber clashes.