"They have hundreds of people simultaneously working on this," he said. "Just by sheer numbers of people they have the largest agencies in the world: cyber agencies, intelligence agencies, [etc.]" Titan Rainthe U.S. governments former code name (the current code name is classified) for a set of coordinated attacks against the countrys computer systems that were attributed to China and which were believed to have been first executed in 2003is one example of Chinas ongoing computer espionage program. (For more on Titan Rain, Time has an in-depth article here.)"They systematically access a system and suck up information as quickly as possible," he said. "They have it down to a science: In 20 minutes they can get into a system, suck up information and be out of there. Its been going on for years at this time. Theyve probably broken into tens of thousands of systems theyve sucked clean." Those hackers didnt get into Sandia Labs, U.S. Army systems and other military contractors systems because theyre brilliant, Winkler said. Rather, cyber-espionage such as this is mostly enabled by Chinese hackers practice of being extremely methodical. Their success also comes from "incredibly poor security on the part of victims," Winkler said. "Most computer attacks are based on poor security rather than the genius of an attacker," he said. As far as spreading malware as a part of electronic warfare goes, it would make sense for the PLA to plant tracking software on systems theyve broken into, in order to increase their intelligence-gathering capabilities. As far as spreading viruses goes, though, Winkler said its nothing hed lose sleep over. "Generic viruses, thats something that frankly I would say its not something you want to rely on, and it could be dangerous to do that. If you start spreading viruses, they could come back and hurt you," he said. "Thereve been so many cases of viruses that have backfired. Some have attempted to help people and have had the opposite effect." China, which is technologically behind the United States, may not rely on the Internet as much as this country, but taking it down still wouldnt make much sense and likely wouldnt work, given the resiliency its shown. "Things go wrong on the Internet on a daily basis, but we survive. If Chinas wasting all their efforts on cyber-intelligence or relying on [electronic warfare preparations], it makes me very happy. As opposed to thinking of more damaging [tactics]," Winkler said. "Frankly, they have ballistics weapons capabilities and a whole bunch of things. Im much more concerned with a single nuclear weapon making it through. [And] wouldnt they get much more value from listening to the critical conversations than destroying [the Internet]? It would have more long-term strategic advantage."
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Chinese hackers over that time period broke into U.S. computer networks including those of Lockheed Martin, Sandia National Laboratories and NASA. Winkler said that China devoted 10-12 hackers to the project, 24x7, as the PLA attempted to find systems that might have valuable information "in any way, shape or form."