The Obama administration has singled out China and Russia as "aggressive" players in the world of cyber-espionage and warned that they will continue to try and steal US industrial and technological secrets.
In a report outlining plans to deal with the theft of American trade secrets that comes in the wake of revelations about Chinese hacking in the US, the White House warned that both countries would remain active in trying to illegally obtain sensitive information.
"We judge that the governments of China and Russia will remain aggressive and capable collectors of sensitive US economic information and technologies, particularly in cyberspace," the report stated.
The study was part of a broad package of policies announced on Wednesday to combat cyber threats. It comes at a time when the issue is front and center in the US after numerous revelations about hacking. They include reports that hackers based in China have tried to penetrate the security of media organisations like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and a report by US cyber-security firm Mandiant, which has accused a secret Chinese military unit in Shanghai of years of cyber-attacks against more than 140 US companies.
The Chinese government has denied being involved in cyber-theft, with China's defense minister calling the Mandiant report deeply flawed. It has also furiously denied being involved in attempts to hack American media organisations.
In its section on China, the report said the Chinese intelligence services, as well as private Chinese companies, often used people with family ties to China as a way to hack into sensitive information. "[They] frequently seek to exploit Chinese citizens or persons with family ties to China who can use their insider access to corporate networks to steal trade secrets using removable media devices or e-mail," the report said.
The Obama administration's new initiative includes a new diplomatic push to discourage intellectual property theft abroad, along with better co-ordination with American companies so that they can improve their defences against hackers. It also wants to improve co-operation between its law enforcement agencies and those of other countries.
Aside from rival countries, the new report has also warned of the threat by online activist groups looking to leak secrets. "Political or social activists may use the tools of economic espionage against US companies, agencies or other entities, with disgruntled insiders leaking information about corporate trade secrets or critical US technology to "hactivist" groups like Wikileaks," the report said.
The mention of WikiLeaks in such a high-profile government document is likely to provide ammunition to supporters of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently claiming asylum in Ecuador's embassy in London while he fights extradition to Sweden to face allegations of sexual assault and rape. Assange claims that he fears the US will seek to extradite him from Sweden should he go there, as revenge for his WikiLeaks activities, which have included publishing highly sensitive American documents about the Iraq war and diplomatic cables from US embassies abroad.
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image: © Aaron Logan