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China’s shadowy cyber-warfare capabilities unmasked in official report

China has a lot of hackers on its payroll. We’ve known that for a long time, even though there has never been much of an official announcement. However, in an unprecedented move the People’s Liberation Army has now for the first time detailed the make up of its digital military divisions, and they are more extensive than most would have imagined.

The reason China’s ruling party has been so quite about its hacking efforts in the past, has been to enable it to deny any actions traced back to it. However, the cat is now firmly out of the bag, as in its latest publication of The Science of Military Strategy – a once every few decades document that details its military infrastructure – it has detailed three separate arms devoted to digital war making.

The first branch is known as the “specialized military network warfare forces,” which is made up of military units that are designed to carry out focused network based attacks, as well as defensive actions, according to security researcher Joe McReynolds (via the Daily Beast). The second arm links with civilian organizations, to conduct “network warfare operations,” on behalf of the military, but without any specific involvement from army personnel. The third and final group is the most shadowy, described in the report as merely “external entities,” which can be mobilized when needed to carry out “network warfare operations.”‘

It’s not clear at this time where the infamous PLA Unit 61398 – which has been linked with hacks against US infrastructure – falls into. It has been speculated in the past that it may operate outside of the traditional party power structure, though it is possible that the second or third branch of the cyber warfare divisions would be applicable for the specialized unit.

The official report including this information was published in December of 2013, but due to the insularity of the Chinese government and the lack of an English translation, it’s only now become noticed by the United States – or the civilian press, at least. What impact this will have on relations between China and other countries active in cyber warfare, such as the United States, is unclear, but McReynolds think it may make foreign cooperation with China on cyber-crime investigations within its borders more difficult.