Secretive US cyber unit has been spying on China for 15 years

NSA headquartersBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
A secretive cyberattack unit within the United States National Security Agency (NSA) has been engaged in protracted offensive cyberespionage operations against China for nearly 15 years. The revelation, made this week by veteran NSA watcher Matthew M. Aid, appears to confirm recent allegations made by Chinese government officials that Beijing’s secrets come under regular attack by US government-sponsored hackers. It also agrees with claims made by several intelligence observers, including this blog, that America’s cyber-security posture is not purely defensive. According to Aid’s article, published this past Monday in Foreign Policy, China’s allegations that it has been the target of sustained cyberespionage attacks by the US “are essentially correct”. Citing “a number of highly confidential sources”, Aid alleges that the NSA maintains a substantial “hacker army”. These ‘cyberwarriors’ allegedly operate under the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, known inside NSA simply as TAO. Its personnel is said to have successfully penetrated the Chinese government’s telecommunications networks and servers since the late 1990s, generating “some of the best and most reliable intelligence information” gained by Washington. It does so through computer network exploitation (CNE) techniques, such as surreptitious hacking, password exploitation, and even by compromising Chinese network security technicians. Aid alleges that TAO works closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), through a small “clandestine intelligence gathering unit”. The latter employs CIA and FBI operatives who perform what are known as “off-net operations”, a term that refers to physical break-ins of Chinese and other foreign diplomatic facilities, in order to compromise the security computer hardware. In another article published on Wednesday on Wired magazine’s Threat Level blog, NSA expert James Bamford suggests that the US government has increased funding for NSA’s ‘cyberwarriors’ to unprecedented levels in recent years. As a result, the Agency has been able to recruit “thousands of computer experts, hackers, and engineering PhDs”, who have enabled it to “expand its offensive capabilities in the digital realm”. Bamford claims that the NSA and its parent organization, the US Department of Defense, plan to establish over a dozen “cyberattack teams” in the near future.

5 Responses to Secretive US cyber unit has been spying on China for 15 years

  1. Pete says:

    Thanks Joseph

    For a clear article about TAO in context. I saw articles earlier this week but they were pretty messy.

    Its nice to know the US has its own army of hackers – to even the score.



  2. Pete says:

    “articles earlier this week ” about TAO in online newspapers that is.

  3. “employs CIA and FBI operatives who perform what are known as “off-net operations”, a term that refers to physical break-ins of Chinese and other foreign diplomatic facilities”

    Burglarizing embassies and consulates at home and abroad is a fairly grave breach of protocol recalling Nixon’s burglars but on an international scale. Indeed were this true, it sets the USA up under the international law principle of reciprocity as liable to every sort of dirty trick.

    I’ve felt for quite some time the USA’s aggressive postures vis-a-vis the world would sooner or later create a collective circumstance where nations that might have under differing circumstance shown a greater restraint, instead will join in the perception a rabid hyena threatening the larger community must be put down.

    The overall posture of the USA does not bode well for it’s future, my view

  4. Pete says:

    Notably China’s PLA Hong Kong garrison includes “1 intelligence gathering battalion” .

    I’d hazard a guess that cyber surveillance of links in and out of HK and within HK would be the intelligence gathering battalion’s main jobs.

    As China’s NSA is military intelligence outfit I’d say officers of PLA-HK’s intelligence gathering battalion are pretty knowledgeable and talking to Edward.

  5. TFH says:

    Had US not invented the Internet in the first place and then started spying on China after they started using it, then …. lost my thread here.

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