New report says cyber spying group linked to China's army

Security company Mandiant said in a report that the cyber spying group was a People's Liberation Army unit under cover

A new report traces a large cyber security threat group to China's People's Liberation Army, specifically an unit that goes under the cover name "Unit 61398".

Security company Mandiant said in a report released Tuesday that an Advanced Persistent Threat group it called APT1 was one of the most persistent of China's cyber threat actors because of its likely government support.

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"In seeking to identify the organization behind this activity, our research found that People's Liberation Army (PLA's) Unit 61398 is similar to APT1 in its mission, capabilities, and resources," Mandiant said in its report. "PLA Unit 61398 is also located in precisely the same area from which APT1 activity appears to originate."

Unit 61398 is said to be located in a 130,663-square-foot building on Datong Road in Gaoqiaozhen, in the Pudong New Area of Shanghai.

The nature of the work of "Unit 61398" is considered by China to be a state secret, but Mandiant said it believes it engages in harmful computer network operations.

The group has a sinister track record, according to Mandiant, as since 2006, it has observed APT1 compromise 141 companies spanning 20 major industries. Eighty-seven percent of the target companies are headquartered in countries where English is the native language, and are in industries that China has identified as strategic.

APT1 uses tools that the security firm finds have not been used by other groups, including two tools for stealing emails called GETMAIL and MAPIGET. Once the group has established access, it periodically revisits the victim's network over several months or years to steal a variety of intellectual property, including technology blueprints, proprietary manufacturing processes, test results, business plans, pricing documents, partnership agreements, and emails and contact lists from the leadership of the victim organizations, Mandiant said.

China's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday the nation is firmly opposed to hacking, and has supported regulation to prevent cyber attacks. The government has previously denied accusations that Chinese hackers attacked major newspapers.

The country has also been the victim of hacking, with the number one origins for those attacks coming from the U.S., said ministry spokesman Hong Lei during a press conference.

"cyber attacks are transnational and anonymous. Its very hard to trace the origins of the attacks. I don't know how this evidence in the relevant report is tenable," he added.

[With additional inputs from Michael Kan in Beijing]