The hunt for a crack team of Chinese hackers reveals a terrifying glimpse of the future

The hunt for a crack team of Chinese hackers reveals a terrifying glimpse of the future, by David Sanger.

“There are two kinds of big companies in the United States. There are those who’ve been hacked by the Chinese and those who don’t know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese.”

– James Comey, then FBI director, October 5, 2014 …

The Chinese hackers, just about all of them male and most in their mid-20s, carried on like a lot of young guys around the world. They showed up at work about 8.30am, checked a few sports scores, emailed their girlfriends, and occasionally watched porn. Then, at 9am, they started methodically breaking into computer systems around the world, banging on the keyboards until a lunch break gave them a moment to go back to the scores, the girlfriends and the porn.

One day I sat next to some of Mandia’s team, watching the Unit 61398 hacking corps at work; it was a remarkable sight. “They were such bros,” says Andrew Schwartz, a communications specialist. “But they were prodigious thieves.” They were also thieves with multiple employers: some ­moonlighted as hackers for Chinese companies, making it unclear whether they were stealing on government or corporate orders.

This was what the new cold war between the world’s two largest economies looked like up close. It bore no resemblance to the more familiar conflicts of past decades. China understood the keys to re-emerging as a global power after a ­centuries-long hiatus: artificial intelligence, space technology, communications, and the crunching of big data. And of course, outmanoeuvring its only real challenger, the US. …

In the cyber world today, we are somewhere around World War I. A decade ago there were three or four nations with effective cyber forces; now there are more than 30. The production curve of cyber weapons produced over the past 10 years roughly follows the trajectory of military ­aircraft. The new weapon has been fired, many times, even if its effects are disputed. The best ­estimates suggest there have been upward of 200 known state-on-state cyberattacks over the past decade or so – a figure that describes only those that have become public. And, as in World War I, this glimpse into the future has led nations to arm up, fast. The US was among the first, building so-called “Cyber Mission Forces”; 133 teams totalling more than 6000 troops were up and running by the end of last year.

hat-tip Stephen Neil