Who Are The Players in China's Targeting of Foreign Technology IP?

The release of Mandiant's APT1 report claimed that the PLA's Third Directorate (3PLA) is the responsible State organization behind Comment Crew (aka APT1). One of the things that the report's authors didn't do was demonstrate how the other State agencies who engage in this type of activity were excluded in their analysis. For future reference, here's a more complete list of the possible organizations who conduct intelligence activities (including cyber) to consider or rule out in terms of possible Chinese attribution.

Traditional Channels

  • The Ministry of State Security (MSS) - Counterespionage and Counterintelligence; Foreign Intelligence; Domestic Intelligence
  • Ministry of Public Security (MPS) - National Police; Domestic Intelligence
  • Second Department of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff Department (2PLA): engages in foreign intelligence, imagery intelligence, and tactical reconnaissance
  • Third Department of the PLA General Staff Department (3PLA); engages in signals intelligence
  • Fourth Department of the PLA General Staff Department (4PLA); engages in computer network operations
  • Liaison Office of the PLA General Political Department
  • Intelligence departments of the PLA Navy, PLA Air Force, and Second Artillery
  • State Secrecy Bureau

Non-Traditional Channels

  • Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense (COSTIND)
  • Research Institutes
  • PRC Military-Industrial Companies
  • Organized Chinese hacker groups


Failed operations. In Amy Elizabeth Brown's paper "Directed or diffuse?: Chinese human intelligence targeting of US defense technology", she makes the same point that I have made multiple times; e.g., that much of the information we have about Chinese espionage cases (cyber and otherwise) comes solely from failed operations - meaning covert operations that have been discovered. Therefore, we have to acknowledge the possibility that China also runs successful covert operations using more effective tradecraft but we don't know the scope or scale.
3PLA's distributed offices. It's important to note that 3PLA, which was identified in the Mandiant APT1 report has, according to Mattis, offices and technical reconnaissance bureaus in each of China’s seven military regions and several major cities (not only Shanghai).
OSINT is insufficient. Another important statement in Mattis' conclusions is that open sources are insufficient to understand the inner workings of these various intelligence agencies.
Lack of sound tradecraft. "One of the defining characteristics of China’s non-traditional techniques for obtaining technology, as observed in many of the cases noted here, is the lack of clandestine tradecraft, or even the most basic elements of operational security, involved in obtaining the information.  In general, it appears that little or no care is used to ensure that the operation goes undetected." - Amy Brown's "Directed or Diffuse" paper as referenced below.
Giving amateur operatives too much credit. "A belief that the Chinese rely on amateur operatives risks leading CI professionals to dismiss or be inattentive to the threat posed by China’s professional services." - Peter Mattis "The Analytic Challenge" paper as referenced below.
Distinguishing economic espionage from Chinese intelligence. "When economic espionage with no connection to the Chinese intelligence services is interpreted as “Chinese intelligence,” less attention will be paid to what those organizations actually do. The Chinese intelligence services and the Chinese defense industries are distinct entities, although they may sometimes work for mutual benefit." - Peter Mattis (Ibid)

Readers of the Mandiant report or any report that purports to reveal the inner workings of Chinese cyber espionage cases are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the papers referenced below as well as the above guidelines that I've extracted from them. 

For example, the lack of tradecraft by the three individuals mentioned in the Mandiant report is palpable, and was pointed out by the report's authors: "These actors have made poor operational security choices, facilitating our research and allowing us to track their activities. They are some of the authors of APT1's digital weapons and the registrants of APT1 FQDNs and email accounts. These actors have expressed interest in China's cyber warfare efforts, disclosed their locations to be the Pudong New Area of Shanghai, and have even used a Shanghai mobile phone number to register email accounts used in spear phishing campaigns." - Mandiant APT1 report, p. 51

Even if one assumes that the Chinese government is the customer for APT1's cyber espionage activities, it's important to consider all of the options before attempting to assign attribution. Such a lack of tradecraft involved deserves at least a mention in the report that non-traditional channels as defined above were considered. As this article points out, those options are plentiful within China, but also include other foreign intelligence services and professional hacker crews who run their operations from China and/or from Chinese servers in order to confound any efforts at attribution.
PRC Intelligence Apparatus - Implications for Foreign Firms

Related Posts:

"Mandiant APT1 Report has critical analytic flaws"


  1. A wonderful article Mr. Carr. I think you have encapsulated my concerns - and I'm sure a few others out there - with the report succinctly.


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