WASHINGTON (AP) - As public evidence mounts that the Chinese military is responsible for stealing massive amounts of US government data and corporate trade secrets, the Obama administration is eyeing fines and other trade actions it may take against Beijing or any other country guilty of cyber-espionage.
According to officials familiar with the plans, the White House will lay out a new report on Wednesday that suggests initial, more-aggressive steps the United States will take in response to what top authorities say has been an unrelenting campaign of cyber-stealing linked to the Chinese government.
The White House plans come after a Virginia-based cyber-security firm released a torrent of details on Monday that tied a secret Chinese military unit in Shanghai to years of cyber-attacks against US companies. After analysing breaches that compromised more than 140 companies, Mandiant has concluded that they can be linked to the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) Unit 61398.
The release of Mandiant's report, complete with details on three of the alleged hackers and photographs of one of the military unit's buildings in Shanghai, makes public what US authorities have said less publicly for years. However, it also increases the pressure on the US to take more forceful action against the Chinese for what experts say has been years of systematic espionage.
"If the Chinese government flew planes into our airspace, our planes would escort them away. If it happened two, three or four times, the President would be on the phone and there would be threats of retaliation," said former FBI executive assistant director Shawn Henry. "This is happening thousands of times a day. There needs to be some definition of where the red line is and what the repercussions would be."
Mr Henry, now president of the security firm CrowdStrike, said rather than tell companies to increase their cyber-security, the government needs to focus more on how to deter the hackers and the nations that are backing them.
Mr James Lewis, a cyber-security expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said that in the past year the White House has been taking a serious look at responding to China, adding that "this will be the year they will put more pressure on, even while realising it will be hard for the Chinese to change. There's not an on-off switch".
The Chinese government, meanwhile, has denied involvement in the cyber-attacks tracked by Mandiant. Instead, the Foreign Ministry said China, too, is a victim of hacking, some of it traced to the US.