Hack analysis suggests Chinese cyberespionage targets chosen based on more than just trading profile

Although Australia is a major trading partner, Chinese hackers target other Western IP producers more frequently

Australia may be China's sixth-largest trading partner, but an analysis of the country's allegedly state-sponsored hacking activities suggests that several other countries are seen as being more important targets for their cyber-espionage activities.

That analysis, conducted by security firm FireEye and released this week, suggested that Chinese hackers had already begun to dial back their activities before high-level interactions between the governments of China and the United States – and ”unprecedented” enforcement efforts against members of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) – sidelined the cybersecurity arms race between the countries.

The June 2014 creation of the PLA Cyberspace Strategic Intelligence Research Center by Chinese leader Xi Jinping ramped up rhetoric and action around the country's cybersecurity capabilities. However, an analysis of the activities of 13 China-based hacking groups, conducted by FireEye between September 2015 and June 106, identified a “notable decline in China-based groups' overall intrusion activity against entities in the US and 25 other countries,” the report advises.

Of these, Australia ranked as the ninth most-attacked country – confirming it is seen as an important target by Chinese intellectual-property thieves but still less so than would seem to be suggested by Australia's position as China's fifth-largest trading partner outside the US.

Based on the number of attacks observed during the FireEye study – 182 incidents against US targets and 80 incidents against 25 named countries – cyber-espionage purveyors were choosing their targets using criteria other than the simple size of their economic relationship with China.

Topping the list ahead of Australia were Great Britain, Japan, Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and India. This list excluded major trading partners like South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brazil, and Russia – suggesting that the Chinese hacking groups were instead focused on Western countries with high levels of industrial, military, and commercial expertise.

While FireEye's analysts admit that the analysis is tricky due to location-obscuring tactics regularly used by online actors, long-term surveillance helps establish certainty around the nature of the threats.

“Inevitably, as we discover more about specific sets of activity, we frequently find links that show us commonalities between these sets, and allow us to assess that the same actors are behind two formerly distinct groups.”

Direct observation of Chinese hackers' groups brings clarity to what have often been largely anecdotal accounts of 'Chinese hackers' posing some nebulous threat to online networks.

FireEye's work around monitoring of hacker activities in Australia and overseas has delivered commercial benefits, with the company's Mandiant Consulting subsidiary recently launching 'red team' services designed to evaluate security capabilities across entire operational environments.

“A lot of learning happens after an attack,” ANZ senior manager for Mandiant Consulting Jackson McKinley recently told CSO Australia. “By attempting to attack an environment to gain access to those systems, we can show customers where all of their traditional security controls are failing when they come up against a mission-oriented adversary.”

“We are simulating the dedicated, high-level focus that a real adversary would bring to bear. Being able to get the full spectrum of defence is important.”

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