Two US congressmen have accused hackers from China of breaking into their computer systems and stealing information on political dissidents, raising concerns at a time of growing global concern about cyberwarfare.
The lawmakers warned that other lawmakers, civilians, and military officials should take steps to protect their laptops and other devices against such break-ins, especially while in China.
The Chinese government has denied any involvement in the cyberattacks.
The two congressmen who made the claims are active in promoting human rights, according to Reuters.
Representative Wolf said that other US government officials had pressured him not to go public with the claims, according to the Associated Press. "My own suspicion is I was targeted by China because of my long history of speaking out about China's abysmal human rights record," said Wolf, according to the report.
Wolf urged congressional hearings on the break-in and wants to raise awareness of the threat of hacking from China and elsewhere, reports Bloomberg.
But a Chinese Embassy official in Washington denied his government was involved in the hacking. That official told The Washington Post that sophisticated hackers in other countries could make their attacks appear to originate from China, regardless of their actual physical location.
ABC News reported that US officials said it's difficult to determine whether hackers from China are backed by the government or operate independently. But it's clear that attacks traced to China-based ISPs (Internet Service Providers, or local hosts) are on the rise.
The latest charges come amid an investigation into whether a US official's computer was compromised during his visit to China last month and concerns over electronic eavesdropping during the upcoming Beijing Olympics, reports the IDG News Service.
Experts say China is clearly ramping up its cyberwar capabilities. The Christian Science Monitor reported last fall that China was in the vanguard of states aiming to use cyberwarfare for political ends. It said experts believe that most Chinese hackers are "gray hats" – meaning they are tech-savvy Chinese nationalists who aren't formal agents of the Chinese government.
A recent National Journal article claimed that according to US security sources, China-based hackers, including those working for the government, may have played a role in two massive blackouts in Florida and the northeast US in recent years.
The magazine said US intelligence officials had linked the People's Liberation Army to the largest-ever blackout in North America, a 2003 outage across 9,300 square miles in the US Northeast that affected some 50 million people.
However, some commentators reacted skeptically to that report. Writing for a Wired magazine-hosted blog, Kevin Poulsen called the article "cyberwar hysteria," arguing that an exhaustive 6-month investigation into the 2003 blackout had traced the root cause of that outage to the utility company First Energy's failure to trim trees growing into power lines in Ohio.