The United States and China forged an agreement last year not to conduct cyber espionage against corporations, but it seems pretty likely that groups based in China have continued to do so. However, it might not all be the fault of the government there, according to a report from security company FireEye.
Of 72 groups that FireEye suspects of operating in China or in China’s interests, 13 of them compromised corporate networks in the U.S., Europe and Japan between last fall - when the agreement was reached - and this month, according the report, “Redline Drawn: China Recalculates Its Use of Cyber Espionage”.
They also compromised a combination of government, military and business networks in countries surrounding China, the report says.
FireEye attributes the 72 China-related attack groups with carrying out 262 network compromises during that time period against a range of victim types, some of them corporations.
But overall, China-based cyber espionage against corporate targets has been declining since 2014, well before the agreement with the U.S.
FireEye suggests several reasons:
- First, Chinese President Xi Jinpin has been centralizing the country’s cyber resources and cracking down on unauthorized use of state resources, which might include agencies carrying out their own espionage against businesses without official state sanction. Cleaning up such abuse might have reduced the spying.
- Public exposure of Chinese involvement in cyberattacks against businesses may have had the effect of curbing them in order to avoid embarrassment or to improve relations with the U.S.
- At the same time the U.S. cranked up the pressure against China for these activities. In 2014 it indicted Peoples’ Liberation Army members and a private Chinese national on charges of cyber espionage. In 2015 President Obama OK'd sanctions against individuals and groups that engage in cyber espionage and rumors circulated that some of them would be directed specifically at China. These diplomatic moves may have helped to influence China to cut back these activities.
FireEye says that declines in corporate cyber espionage might not all be directed by the state. In tracking the 72 threat actors in China, it notes that some have altered some of their tools and tactics, and some have altered none of them. Some have changed some of their tools and tactics apparently in response to having their old ones exposed publicly. Some groups have changed the goal of their activities from spying to compromising servers to use as infrastructure for later attacks.
The bottom line, FireEye says, is that there appears to be no centrally controlled and coordinated cyber espionage effort. Groups may act out of a desire for economic or military advantage or they may do so out of patriotism. The net result is fewer incidents of China-backed corporate espionage, the report says.