Not so long ago, computer hacking was mainly the handiwork of individuals with overactive imaginations and good programming skills, and they often broke into computers for sport. More recently, people with more sinister motives – including organized criminal gangs – have made an industry out of stealing credit-card information and personal identities for quick cash.
But lurking in the cybershadows is a far more insidious and sophisticated form of computer espionage that, until the recent exposure by search-engine titan Google, was little publicized and often went undetected. Such attackers represent the elite – a dark army of cyberspies targeting the heart of corporations around the world where trade secrets, proprietary data, and cutting-edge technologies lie locked away in digital fortresses.
Some of these attacks are believed to be carried out by foreign governments or their surrogates. “Any country that wants to support and develop an indigenous industry may very well use cyberespionage to help do that,” says Greg Garcia, assistant secretary for cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security under the Bush administration.
While most major nations, including the United States, are conducting Internet espionage, experts say two traditional US adversaries, China and Russia, are among the most aggressive and adept at carrying out such attacks. Both countries are known to have large communities of hackers and a deep base of computer security expertise.