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In what is being called an unprecedented move, China's government has reportedly arrested a number of Chinese hackers at the request of the U.S. government, but one expert asserts this move is more a reaction to threats of economic sanctions by president Obama than true progress in relations between the two nations.
Hackers based in China have been routinely accused of attacking U.S. businesses and government agencies, including the recent breach of OPM systems that affected tens of millions of people, and China has also accused U.S. hackers of the same.
The U.S. has been calling for more action by the Chinese government for years, but now after threats of sanctions from president Obama, and weeks before a Washington visit from Chinese president Xi Jinping, has action been taken.
A source close to the situation told The Washington Post that the U.S. demanded to see proof that China was "serious" about punishing hackers. So, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies reportedly sent a list of adversaries and China's government had the hackers arrested.
China's Public Security Bureau, the agency that would have been responsible for the arrests, did not respond to a request for comment at the time of this publication, and the Chinese government has not officially confirmed the arrests. The U.S. Department of Justice also did not respond to requests for comment.
On September 25, 2015, China and the U.S. announced an agreement for cooperation in requests to investigate cybercrimes and share threat information, but Jason Polancich, founder and chief architect at SurfWatch Labs Inc., is unsure this move by China is really the beginning of improved relations.
"Recent diplomatic efforts by the Obama administration finally put some pressure on the Chinese to act or risk trade sanctions -- something they definitely don't want," Polancich said. "It's too soon to tell if the actions by the Chinese government are a hand-wave or the start of real progress toward a cyber cool-down."
Polancich said that even increased cooperation may not lead to more transparency in terms of attributing cyberattacks against U.S. entities to Chinese nationals.
"I can't imagine China providing any serious level of attribution, even if they wanted to do so," Polancich said. "For China to admit anything or divulge much information on specific actors inside their borders beyond a few diplomatically compliant morsels can't be expected any more than they'd expect us to do so. They know they're hitting us, we know they're hitting us, but there's very little we can do about it."
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