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Why the 'China virus' hack at US energy companies is worrisome

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Since the 9/11 attacks, national security has largely been about protecting the US homeland against radical Islamists. But as dangerous as al-Qaeda and other groups have proven to be, the threat they represent is not as systemic as the ongoing threat of cyber-warfare.

Right now, there is every reason to believe a covert cyber-war is underway and that crucial industrial information has made its way to computers in China.

When Google announced two weeks ago that Chinese hackers had broken into its Gmail system, the target appeared to be information about human-rights activists in China. But hackers operating from Chinese servers are also systematically targeting the IT networks of major US companies to extract valuable competitive intelligence in areas like technology and energy resources.

A Christian Science Monitor investigative report reveals that hackers penetrated the security walls of three US energy companies, targeting information that would give them an insight into valuable data on oil and gas exploration. (The report appears in full in the Jan. 31-dated issue of the Monitor weekly newsmagazine.)

The attack, which occurred in 2008 and was brought to the companies' attention by the FBI later that year, unfolded via fake e-mail messages containing what cyber-security specialists have dubbed a "China virus." A "Trojan horse" was installed on the companies IT networks when an e-mail recipient clicked on an embedded link.

The target: competitive data on potential energy deposits.

Energy companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year dispatching geologists, work crews, and sophisticated exploration equipment to remote parts of the globe to search for oil and gas. After dozens of dry holes, an oil company might come up with a handful of good prospects.

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