Foreign spies are targeting U.S. BlackBerrys and iPhones in a bid to steal economic and trade secrets, as the use of computers for economic espionage is growing, according to the latest annual report from the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive.
“Cyber threats are increasingly pervasive and are rapidly becoming a priority means of obtaining economic and technical information,” the report to Congress stated. “Reports of new cyber attacks against U.S. government and business entities proliferated in fiscal year 2008. Several adversaries expanded their computer network operations, and the use of new venues for intrusions increased.”
The report, recently made public, covers most of 2008 and stated that targeting of mobile telephones increased last year. “Blackberry[s] and iPhone[s] — essentially general purpose computers — are susceptible to malicious software,” the report stated.
Joel F. Brenner, until recently the national counterintelligence executive, has said that in one case a visiting U.S. security specialist had his hand-held penetrated by electronic code as he rode from Beijing’s international airport to his hotel.
Chinese economic espionage was mentioned frequently in the report, with one of the most damaging cases involving a researcher at the University of Tennessee who supplied China with Air Force technology on the development of advanced nonmechanical controllers used on munitions-carrying unmanned aerial vehicles. A federal jury in Knoxville convicted professor J. Reece Roth of the crime in September 2008.
Economic spies are seeking both classified and unclassified technology and secrets from the U.S. government and private sector, the report stated, including such targets as dual-use, exportcontrolled and military items.
The most heavily targeted sectors across all agencies included aeronautics, information systems, lasers and optics, sensors and marine systems.
“Cyber threats are increasingly pervasive, and several key adversaries have drastically expanded their computer network operations for intelligence collection and military use,” the report said. “Moreover, the techniques used and the growing computer globalization made it increasingly difficult to detect and prevent intrusions.”
Also: “According to information compiled during the reporting period, businessmen, scientists, engineers, and academics, as well as state security services from a large number of countries, continued to target U.S. information and technology. The bulk of the collection activity, however, came from a core group of countries.”
Federal authorities in the last year uncovered seven cases of Chinese-origin economic spying, involving illegal efforts to obtain technology on space launchers, unmanned aerial vehicles, mili- tary aircraft, thermal imaging, missile targeting and military source codes.
Chinese Embassy spokeswoman Wei Xin has denied reports that China is engaged cyber activities or espionage. “Anyone making relevant accusations against China is welcome to submit their reliable evidence, and China is ready to provide investigative cooperation so as to counter the common threat faced by the international community,” she said.
In response to spying reports, Miss Wei said: “China has solemnly stated on many occasions that China never does anything undermining the interest of others and China advocates cooperation between countries on the basis of fairness, justice, equality and mutual benefit.”
Iranian agents were involved in nine cases of economic espionage, including efforts to steal engineering software, telecommunications equipment; electronics and improvised explosives; gas valves; nickel alloy pipes; jet fighter components; and software for running nuclear plants, the report stated, citing Justice Department reports.
Other cases involved Indian efforts to obtain missile technology and nuclear testing equipment; Pakistani efforts to obtain materials for nuclear weapons and missiles; a Taiwanese effort to obtain aircraft targeting gear and joint effort by Thailand and United Arab Emirates to steal military aircraft parts.