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Cyber-spying said to target U.S. business

A new intelligence assessment has concluded that the United States is the target of a massive, sustained cyber-espionage campaign that is threatening the country’s economic competitiveness, according to people familiar with the report.

The National Intelligence Estimate identifies China as the country most aggressively seeking to penetrate the computer systems of American businesses and institutions to gain access to data that could be used for economic gain.

The report, which represents the consensus of the U.S. intelligence community, describes a wide range of sectors that have been the focus of hacking over the past five years, including energy, finance, information technology, aerospace and automobiles, according to the individuals familiar with the report, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the classified document. The assessment does not quantify the financial impact of the espionage, but experts have estimated it in the tens of billions of dollars.

Cyber-espionage, which was once viewed as a concern mainly by U.S. intelligence and the military, is increasingly seen as a direct threat to the nation’s economic interests.

In a sign of such concerns, the Obama administration is seeking ways to counter the online theft of trade secrets, according to officials. Analysts have said that the administration’s options include formal protests, the expulsion of diplomatic personnel, the imposition of travel and visa restrictions, and complaints to the World Trade Organization.

Cyber-espionage is “just so widespread that it’s known to be a national issue at this point,” said one administration official, who like other current and former officials interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The National Intelligence Estimate names three other countries – Russia, Israel and France – as having engaged in hacking for economic intelligence but says cyber-espionage by those countries pales in comparison with China.

China has staunchly rejected such allegations, saying the Beijing government neither condones nor carries out computer hacking.

At least as far back as the early 1980s, China has made the acquisition of Western technology a centerpiece of its economic development planning. The explosion in computer use has greatly aided that transfer of technology.

China’s intelligence services, as well as private companies, frequently seek to exploit Chinese citizens or people with family ties to China who can use insider access to U.S. corporate networks to steal trade secrets using thumb drives or email, according to a report by the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive.

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