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Cyberattack report puts China back in spotlight

Hacker in the front of a laptop computer
Hacker in the front of a laptop computer over flags of U.S and China with U.S. Energy Department and United Nations logo. CBS/AP

An intense hacking operation  that compromised computers at such high-profile organizations as the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee has returned allegations of a Chinese hacking offensive to the spotlight.

The computer security firm McAfee Inc. didn't name a suspect in its report on the five-year-long hacking operation released Wednesday, though anonymous security experts told The New York Times that China has developed a "sophisticated" squad to conduct cyber warfare.

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"We're not pointing fingers at anyone but we believe it was a nation-state," Dmitri Alperovitch, McAfee's vice president of threat research and the report's lead author, told the Times Wednesday.

McAfee's report says it found security breaches dating back to mid-2006 and included one attack that lasted for 28 straight months against an unidentified Asian country's national Olympic committee. Overall, McAfee identified 72 hacking targets, including 49 in the U.S. Among the other victims were the U.N. secretariat, a U.S. Energy Department lab and a number of U.S. defense companies.

McAfee told the Times that it didn't identify American corporations harmed by the operation because the corporations worried that being named would scare its shareholders and customers.

The Chinese government has been considered a top suspect in compromising American Internet security systems. In June 2010, CBS' "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft reported the following:

One top U.S. intelligence official is on record saying that the Chinese have already aggressively infiltrated the computer networks of some U.S. banks and are operating inside U.S. electrical grids, mapping out our networks and presumably leaving behind malicious software that could be used to sabotage the systems.

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To be sure, China has used more low-tech options in its arsenal for spying on the United States. Last August, CBS' Scott Pelley, now anchor of the "CBS Evening News," reported on rare video obtained by "60 Minutes" showing a Chinese spy buying secrets from a Pentagon employee.

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On Wednesday, the Times attempted to ask the Chinese government for comment on McAfee's report, but the country's foreign ministry didn't respond to the Times' requests. The newspaper noted that foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a July news conference in Beijing that "The Chinese government opposes hacking in all its manifestations."

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