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Unit 61398 is considered just one of many such units under the Third Department responsible for hacking, according to experts.
Greg Walton, a cyber-security researcher who has tracked Chinese hacking campaigns, said he’s observed the "Comment Crew" at work, but cites as equally active another Third Department unit operating out of the southwestern city of Chengdu. It is tasked with stealing secrets from Indian government security agencies and think tanks, together with the India-based Tibetan Government in Exile, Walton said.
Another hacking outfit believed by some to have PLA links, the "Elderwood Group," has targeted defense contractors, human rights groups, non-governmental organizations, and service providers, according to computer security company Symantec.
It’s believed to have compromised Amnesty International’s Hong Kong website in May 2012, although other attacks have gone after targets as diverse as the Council on Foreign Relations and Capstone Turbine Corporation, which makes gas microturbines for power plants.
Civilian departments believed to be involved in hacking include those under the Ministry of Public Security, which commands the police, and the Ministry of State Security, one of the leading clandestine intelligence agencies. The MSS is especially suspected in attacks on foreign academics studying Chinese social issues and unrest in the western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.
Below them on the hacking hierarchy are private actors, including civilian universities and research institutes, state industries in key sectors such as information technology and resources, and college students and other individuals acting alone or in groups, according to analysts, University of Maryland’s Forno said.
China’s government isn’t alone in being accused of cyber espionage, but observers say it has outpaced its rivals in using military assets to steal commercial secrets.
"Stealing secrets is stealing secrets regardless of the medium," Forno said. "The key difference is that you can’t easily arrest such electronic thieves since they’re most likely not even in the country, which differs from how the game was played during the Cold War."
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