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‘GROUND ZERO FOR CYBERATTACKS’

Fighting back against hackers

Pittsburgh team battles Chinese crime; 5 suspects indicted

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    Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei looks at the papers before he speaks during a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, China Tuesday, May 20, 2014. China on Tuesday warned the United States was jeopardizing military ties by charging five Chinese officers with cyberspying and tried to turn the tables on Washington by calling it "the biggest attacker of China's cyberspace." (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

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    Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei speaks during a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, China Tuesday, May 20, 2014. China on Tuesday warned the United States was jeopardizing military ties by charging five Chinese officers with cyberspying and tried to turn the tables on Washington by calling it "the biggest attacker of China's cyberspace." (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

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  • China-Cyberspying-2

    Press materials are displayed on a table of the Justice Department in Washington, Monday, May 19, 2014, before Attorney General Eric Holder was to speak at a news conference. Holder was announcing that a U.S. grand jury has charged five Chinese hackers with economic espionage and trade secret theft, the first-of-its-kind criminal charges against Chinese military officials in an international cyber-espionage case. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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    Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei gestures during a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, China Tuesday, May 20, 2014. China on Tuesday warned the United States was jeopardizing military ties by charging five Chinese officers with cyberspying and tried to turn the tables on Washington by calling it "the biggest attacker of China's cyberspace." (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

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  • China-US-Cyberspying-7

    Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei speaks during a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, China Tuesday, May 20, 2014. China on Tuesday warned the United States was jeopardizing military ties by charging five Chinese officers with cyberspying and tried to turn the tables on Washington by calling it "the biggest attacker of China's cyberspace." (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

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    FILE - This May 31, 2013 file photo shows the building housing “Unit 61398” of the People’s Liberation Army, center top, on the outskirts of Shanghai, China. A U.S. security firm, Mandiant, said last year it traced attacks on American and other companies to the military unit in Shanghai. China on Tuesday, May 20, 2004, warned the United States was jeopardizing military ties by charging five Chinese officers with cyberspying and tried to turn the tables on Washington by calling it "the biggest attacker of China's cyberspace." The testy exchange marked an escalation in tensions over U.S. complaints that China's military uses its cyber warfare skills to steal foreign trade secrets to help the country's vast state-owned industrial sector. (AP Photo, File)

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  • n4china

    FBI Special Agent in Charge Scott S. Smith discusses the recent cyber-espionage case at FBI Headquarters in Pittsburgh. U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton is in the background. The hackers were People’s Liberation Army officials.

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China-US-Cyberspying-5

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei speaks during a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, China Tuesday, May 20, 2014. China on Tuesday warned the United States was jeopardizing military ties by charging five Chinese officers with cyberspying and tried to turn the tables on Washington by calling it "the biggest attacker of China's cyberspace." (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge

China-Cyberspying-2

Press materials are displayed on a table of the Justice Department in Washington, Monday, May 19, 2014, before Attorney General Eric Holder was to speak at a news conference. Holder was announcing that a U.S. grand jury has charged five Chinese hackers with economic espionage and trade secret theft, the first-of-its-kind criminal charges against Chinese military officials in an international cyber-espionage case. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

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PITTSBURGH — Federal prosecutors and FBI investigators made the case Tuesday that Chinese computer pros messed with the wrong town, leading to the indictment of five Peoples Liberation Army officials.

“Pittsburgh has been ground zero for cyberthreats,” U.S. attorney David Hickton said.

Partly as a result, he reorganized his office, which handles federal prosecutions within Western Pennsylvania, to include a national security and cybercrime unit.

“The team here, they’re some of the best in the U.S.,” added J. Keith Mularski, supervisory special agent for the FBI Pittsburgh’s cybersquad. He would not detail the number of cyberexperts in the Pittsburgh field office and its satellites — which include a total of 145 FBI agents and 150 other professionals — but said the ranks include “very good technical agents and very mature agents with a lot of experience.”

The indictment unsealed in Pittsburgh on Monday detailed 31 counts of computer crimes, aggravated identity theft, economic espionage, and theft of trade secrets. It named Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu, and Gu Chunhui, who prosecutors said worked in a single building in Shanghai, China, as part of Unit 61398 of the People’s Liberation Army.

China-US-Cyberspying-6

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei gestures during a daily briefing at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs office in Beijing, China Tuesday, May 20, 2014. China on Tuesday warned the United States was jeopardizing military ties by charging five Chinese officers with cyberspying and tried to turn the tables on Washington by calling it "the biggest attacker of China's cyberspace." (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

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The five masked their escapades by remotely capturing computers — referred to in the indictment as “hotpoints” — in places like Kansas. That got them around corporate computer security systems that filter out international messages.

“They have to use U.S. hotpoints in order to blend into the normal traffic,” Mr. Mularski said.

The five are accused of targeting entities that competed with and pursued fair trade cases against Chinese competitors, including U.S. Steel, Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, the United Steelworkers International Union, and SolarWorld, which produces solar panels. Also targeted was Westinghouse Electric, even though that company was already sharing nuclear reactor technology with Chinese-owned firms.

Neither prosecutors nor the FBI would say Tuesday how the investigation started, nor would they detail their interactions with the companies. Scott Smith, special agent in charge of the FBI in Pittsburgh, commended the “courage” of the companies.

While the alleged hackers no doubt targeted the Pittsburgh companies because they compete with China, in doing so they stumbled on what Mr. Mularski described as the center of the cybersecurity universe.

The National Cyber-Forensics & Training Alliance, a nonprofit organization that fights cybercrime threats, is right across the Monongahela River from the FBI’s offices, Mr. Mularski noted. Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute and its cybersecurity-focused CERT Division are nearby in Oakland.

“We have in Pittsburgh perhaps the best team of cyberexperts in the FBI, anywhere in the country,” said Mr. Hickton. “They are smart. They are hardworking. They are creative and they are indefatigable.”

They are also out in the community making presentations throughout corporate Pittsburgh, he said.

“It’s hard to overstate how much outreach we’re doing on this,” he said. “Government can’t solve this problem alone, and it certainly is a huge burden to the private victims.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rich Lord is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Rich Lord at: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542.

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