“They’re using the least amount of sophistication necessary to accomplish their mission,” Kindlund said. “They have a lot of manpower available, but not necessarily a lot of intelligent manpower to conduct these operations stealthily.”
The culture of hacking began in China in the late 1990s. The most famous underground group then was Green Army. One sign of how hacking has gone mainstream is the fact that the name of a later incarnation of Green Army — Lumeng — is now being used by a top cybersecurity company in China. (Its English name is NSFOCUS.)
These companies are often started by prominent hackers or employ the hackers to do network security. They have polished Web sites that list Chinese government agencies and companies as their clients. They also list foreign clients — one company, Knownsec, lists Microsoft — and have offices abroad.
The Web site of another company, Venustech, says its clients include more than 100 government offices, among them almost all the military commands. The company, which declined an interview request, has a hacking and cyberdefense research center.
Another former hacker said the monolithic notion of insidious, state-sponsored hacking now discussed in the West was absurd. The presence of the state throughout the economy means hackers often end up doing work for the government at some point, even if it is through something as small-scale as a contract with a local government office.
“I don’t think the West understands,” he said. “China’s government is so big. It’s almost impossible to not have any crossover with the government.”
Large companies in China are employing hackers for industrial espionage, in operations that involve complex tiers of agents who hire the hackers. Sany Group, one of China’s biggest makers of construction equipment, hired hackers to spy on Zoomlion, a rival, according to official media reports confirmed by the former hacker. Sany declined to comment.
That hacker said he knew the middleman agent who had hired the cyberspies for Sany. The agent was a security engineer who owned two apartments in Beijing and had been under pressure to meet mortgage payments.
“In China, everyone is struggling to feed themselves, so why should they consider values and those kinds of luxuries?” the former hacker said. “They work for one thing, and that’s for money.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Ansfield