Online industrial spying presents a growing threat to the U.S. economy and national security, American intelligence agencies warned Thursday in a report to Congress that publicly accused China and Russia of responsibility for cyber-espionage.
Tens of billions of dollars of trade secrets, technology and intellectual property are being siphoned each year from the computer systems of U.S. government agencies, corporations and research institutions, said the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, which focuses on espionage against the United States.
This accelerating theft of information, at a time when the American economy is suffering, has prompted U.S. officials to single out countries that conduct online spying for economic advantage. While hackers come from scores of countries and range from foreign intelligence services to corporations to criminals, the source of U.S. concern mainly has been China and Russia.
“Chinese actors are the world’s most active and persistent perpetrators of economic espionage,” said the report, “Foreign Spies Stealing U.S. Economic Secrets in Cyberspace,” which was based on the work of 14 U.S. intelligence agencies. The report also notes that “Russia’s intelligence services are conducting a range of activities to collect economic information and technology from U.S. targets.”
Robert “Bear” Bryant, the national counterintelligence executive, said at a news conference that online spying is “a quiet menace to our economy with notably big results. . . . Trade secrets developed over thousands of working hours by our brightest minds are stolen in a split second and transferred to our competitors.”
Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodang rejected the U.S. contentions, saying that China opposes “any form of unlawful cyberspace activities.” In a 2009 survey of Chinese computer security professionals, 89 percent said they were most worried about the United States penetrating their networks, but the U.S. government says its policy is not to conduct such espionage.
A Russian Embassy spokesman declined to comment on the report.
Experts say the data loss occurs in part because companies have not shored up their defenses effectively and because the government cannot easily share threat information that it considers secret. Most companies do not share details of intrusions into their systems with U.S. officials, making it hard for the government to warn others or to build defenses.
The trend also illustrates a truism of cyberspace: Defense is more difficult than offense. Whether in cyberwar or cyber-espionage, the advantage lies with the attacker or hacker.
Bryant said the government’s unusual candor in naming particular countries was driven by the severity of the threat and a desire to foster solutions, including deeper partnerships between the public and private sectors.
With the domestic and world economies lagging and U.S. unemployment above 9 percent, cutting-edge technology is key to U.S. economic growth. But it is that very technology that is being targeted by countries such as China, as part of a broader strategy to build its own economy and become a global powerhouse.
Since at least the early 2000s, hacker groups in China have carried out a series of computer intrusions against U.S. and foreign government computer networks, as well as those belonging to international groups, including human rights organizations, according to diplomatic cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Last year, Google announced that proprietary data were stolen by hackers in China in what experts said was part of a vast campaign of economic espionage.
Foreign intelligence agencies, corporations and individual hackers increased their efforts to steal proprietary technology in between 2009 and 2011, the report said. Some of the thieves are allies — the Israelis and the French have targeted U.S. commercial secrets, former officials have noted.
“The computer networks of a broad array of U.S. government agencies, private companies, universities and other institutions — all holding large volumes of sensitive economic information — were targeted by cyber espionage,” the report said. “Much of this activity appears to have originated in China.”
Indeed, “the Russians are very quiet and very good” at cyber-espionage, said Joel F. Brenner, the former national counterintelligence executive whose new book, “America the Vulnerable,” discusses the threat. “But for relentlessness and sheer volume, the Chinese are in a class by themselves.”
The report comes as other U.S. officials have increasingly spoken out about the massive transfer of wealth taking place through computer networks.
“This is definitely the golden age of cyber-espionage,” said Steven Chabinsky, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s cyber division. “Foreign states are stealing data left and right from private-sector companies, nonprofit organizations and government agencies.”