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Cyber Spies Targeting U.S. Defense, Tech Firms Linked to China's PLA: Report

A sophisticated cyber espionage group apparently tied to a Chinese military unit has been targeting organizations in the United States government, research, defense and technology sectors, a new report from CrowdStrike has revealed.

Dubbed “Putter Panda” by the security firm, the threat actors are said to be operating from Shanghai apparently on behalf of Unit 61486 of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The group is reportedly linked to the PLA’s 3rd General Staff Department, China’s primary SIGINT collection and analysis agency, and it mainly targets space and aerospace industries not only in the US, but in Europe and Japan as well.

China Cyber Espionage

“This particular unit is believed to hack into victim companies throughout the world in order to steal corporate trade secrets, primarily relating to the satellite, aerospace and communication industries. With revenues totaling $189.2 billion in 2013, the satellite industry is a prime target for espionage campaigns that result in the theft of high-stakes intellectual property,” explained George Kurtz, CEO and co-founder of CrowdStrike.

“While the gains from electronic theft are hard to quantify, stolen information undoubtedly results in an improved competitive edge, reduced research and development timetables, and insight into strategy and vulnerabilities of the targeted organization,” Kurtz added.

The group has been operational since at least 2007, with most of their attacks relying on custom malware deployed through exploits for popular applications like Adobe Reader and the Microsoft Office suite, CrowdStrike noted in its report.

The company also believes that it has identified one of the individuals allegedly involved with the operation. 35-year-old Chen Ping, also known as CPYY, is believed to be responsible for the procurement of the domains used to control Putter Panda malware. The domains have been registered to an address that corresponds to the physical location of Unit 61486 headquarters in Shanghai, the report said.

Unit 61486 is not the only PLA unit accused of conducting cyber espionage operations. In February 2013, Mandiant published a report detailing the activities of Unit 61398, five officers of which were charged with economic espionage against the United States in May 2014.

The Chinese government has denied the accusations on numerous occasions and has asked for more evidence in support of the United States’ claims. CrowdStrike has found evidence that Putter Panda has shared infrastructure with Unit 61398, also known as Comment Panda, and that actors with ties to both groups have interacted.

“Targeted economic espionage campaigns compromise technological advantage, diminish global competition, and ultimately have no geographic borders,” CrowdStrike said. “We believe the U.S. Government indictments and global acknowledgment and awareness are important steps in the right direction. In support of these efforts, we are making this report available to the public to continue the dialog around this ever-present threat.”

The complete 62-page intelligence report on Putter Panda is available online.