Our Views: Digital spies of Shanghai

Different worlds collided when The New York Times published embarrassing details about the financial fortunes amassed by family members of China’s leaders.

The family of Premier Wen Jiabao was reported to be worth $2.7 billion, with his mother holding a stake in an insurance company and his wife in precious gems, and his U.S.-educated son running a major private equity firm.

In the world of civilized nations, there could well have been a reaction, as the politician would deploy arguments to minimize the damage. In China, where an all-powerful Communist Party has ruled for more than 60 years, a significant hacking attack occurred.

Seeking out the e-mails of Times journalists, the hacking attack was traced back to China by Mandiant, a consulting firm hired by the newspaper.

Now, the firm reports that significant hacking activity has been traced to a drab office building on the outskirts of Shanghai.

According to The New York Times, U.S. officials have been aware for some time of the hacking group officially known as People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398, unofficially as “Comment Crew.” But the new report makes public details of the efforts by the Peoples Liberation Army that go well beyond stifling comment on the crookedness of the “princelings” of the Communist Party.

There appear to have been attacks against other major U.S. firms, stealing proprietary information like negotiating strategies, and illicitly obtaining blueprints to the American oil and gas infrastructure.

China denies the allegations. Somewhat drily, Mandiant said that if the hacking activity in Shanghai is not the work of Unit 61398, then “a secret, resourced organization full of mainland Chinese speakers with direct access to Shanghai-based telecommunications infrastructure is engaged in a multiyear enterprise-scale computer espionage campaign right outside of Unit 61398’s gates.”

In the sweep of history, it is not surprising that there would be spying to win advantage in commercial or industrial spheres. What is a change in this Internet age is the capacity to hack into computer systems, but also the capacity to build a credible track back to the perpetrators, in this case to the PLA office.

The United States clearly must respond in the most-aggressive way to this industrial espionage. Our relations are endangered if an agency of the Chinese government is engaged in such direct attacks on U.S. secrets, commercial or otherwise.