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Instances of hacking may be up, but indictments against Chinese military impactful, experts say

| Wednesday, July 1, 2015, 11:27 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Computer hacking indictments filed in Pittsburgh last year against members of the Chinese military have not led to arrests, but they did put that country on notice, top cybersecurity experts here said Wednesday.

Online spying by the Chinese certainly did not stop and even might have increased since the charges were filed in 2014, but the case marks a watershed in the United States' negotiations with China over online attacks, said James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, a Washington security think tank.

“Being publicly cast as the bad guys with strong evidence is very upsetting to them,” Lewis told the Tribune-Review. “The indictments were in some ways probably the most effective things the federal government has ever done (on cybersecurity). It made them realize we were serious about this.”

The two countries' cyber capabilities and online actions are expected to remain at the center of talks between the United States and China through a planned White House visit by China's Xi Jinping in September, his first since becoming president. China raised concerns again Wednesday when it adopted a wide-ranging national security law aimed at clamping down on online activity it deems threatening, experts said.

The Chinese government denies ever engaging in any form of cyber attacks and says that it firmly opposes them.

“Cybersecurity is an important issue concerned by both China and the U.S.,” Chinese embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan told the Trib. “Carrying out cooperation on cybersecurity between China and the U.S., both as major network nations, is in the interests of both sides.”

David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, said he remains hopeful about bringing Chinese hacking defendants to justice in Pittsburgh but believes the indictments have been successful in other ways. The cases defeated online anonymity by providing evidence that specifically tracked attacks and reversed decades of inaction on hard-to-prosecute international computer cases, he said.

Hickton said he does not know whether Chinese online spying has increased or abated in the past year.

“Even by just bringing indictments, we have served notice, we have laid out our evidence, and we have taken an official position that we are going to reverse the default position, which had existed for almost a decade, that we would allow crimes committed here and not charge them simply because it might be difficult to bring the perpetrators to justice,” Hickton told the Trib.

Online spying by the Chinese probably has increased, and the indictments had no practical legal effect, said Christopher Johnson, senior adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Legal action could have been better coordinated from the Justice Department with national security and diplomatic agencies, he said, but the cases were necessary.

“We had to do something, and the administration had to look like it was doing something,” Johnson said.

Chinese leaders can continue to escalate the online skirmishes with attacks such as the recently disclosed hack of the Office of Personnel Management involving the records of millions of federal employees, he said.

With increased public pressure on them, Chinese officials could change direction and decide on a new narrative. Xi's high-profile White House visit could be a moment for the Obama administration to exert pressure on the Chinese to choose a new path.

But given the lack of significant official response by the United States to cyberattacks so far other than the indictments, the Chinese are unlikely to be deterred, Johnson said.

“It seems to me we have crossed several thresholds,” Johnson said. “I'm not sure what more they could do short of shutting down the power in New York City ... that would merit some response.”

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or andrewconte@tribweb.com.

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