A coalition of security researchers has identified a Chinese cyberespionage group that appears to be the most sophisticated of any publicly known Chinese hacker unit and targets not only U.S. and Western government agencies but also dissidents inside and outside China.
News of the state-sponsored hacker group dubbed Axiom comes a week before Secretary of State John F. Kerry and two weeks before President Obama are due to arrive in Beijing for a series of high-level talks, including on the issue of cybersecurity.
In a report to be issued Tuesday, the researchers said Axiom is going after intelligence benefiting Chinese domestic and international policies — an across-the-waterfront approach that combines commercial cyberespionage, foreign intelligence and counterintelligence with the monitoring of dissidents.
Axiom’s work, the FBI said in an industry alert this month, is more sophisticated than that of Unit 61398, a People’s Liberation Army hacker unit that was highlighted in a report last year. Five of the unit’s members were indicted this year by a U.S. grand jury. The researchers concur with the FBI’s conclusion, noting that, unlike Unit 61398, Axiom is focused on spying on dissidents as well as on industrial espionage and theft of intellectual property.
“Axiom’s activities appear to be supported by a nation state to steal trade secrets and to target dissidents, pro-democracy organizations and governments,” said Peter LaMontagne, chief executive of Novetta Solutions, a Northern Virginia cybersecurity firm that heads the coalition. “These are the most sophisticated cyberespionage tactics we’ve seen out of China.”
Chinese Embassy spokesman Geng Shuang said in an e-mail that “judging from past experience, these kinds of reports or allegations are usually fictitious.” He repeated Beijing’s position that Chinese law prohibits cybercrime and that the government “has done whatever it can to combat such activities.”