Cyber-war: Just how dangerous are China's military hackers?

A new report puts the blame for a rash of cyber-attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure at the feet of a shadowy unit of China's army

Locals walk in front of Unit 61398, a secretive Chinese military unit on the outskirts of Shanghai on Feb. 19.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a new honor, the Distinguished Warfare Medal, for U.S. cyber-warriors, drone pilots, and other service members who do battle far from the battlefield. The perceived mockery of bestowing accolades on these "armchair warriors" seems a little less cutting after a new New York Times report on the massive amount of hacking directed toward the U.S. government, critical infrastructure, and private corporations from the Shanghai-area headquarters of Unit 61398, a shadowy branch of China's People's Liberation Army.

The Times story draws heavily on a report being released Tuesday by U.S. internet security firm Mandiant, but the newspaper verified the information with U.S. security officials and rival internet security groups. One group of sophisticated hackers, Mandiant says, is responsible for an overwhelming majority of attacks on U.S. government agencies and private companies: "Comment Crew," sometimes called the "Shanghai Group." (Watch Comment Crew hackers in action, curated by Mandiant.) How does the group know these hackers work for the Chinese army? They actually aren't 100 percent sure, but they traced the IP addresses and other digital bread crumbs at least to the door of the 12-story building that houses Unit 61398.

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