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Top China college probed for ties to cyber-spy unit

Faculty members at a top Chinese university have collaborated for years on technical research papers with a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) unit accused of being at the heart of China’s alleged cyber-war against Western commercial targets.

Several papers on computer network security and intrusion detection, easily accessed on the Internet, were co-authored by researchers at PLA Unit 61398, allegedly an operational unit actively engaged in cyber-espionage, and faculty at Shanghai Jiaotong University, a centre of academic excellence with ties to some of the world’s top universities and attended by the country’s political and business elite.

The apparent working relationship between the PLA unit and Shanghai Jiaotong is in contrast to common practice in most developed nations, where university professors in recent decades have been reluctant to cooperate with operational intelligence gathering units.

The issue of cyber-security is testing ties between the world’s two biggest economies, prompting US President Barack Obama to raise concerns over computer hacking in a phone call with new Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China denies it engages in state-sponsored hacking, saying it is a victim of cyber-attacks from the United States.

There is no evidence to suggest any Shanghai Jiaotong academics who co-authored papers with Unit 61398 worked with anyone directly engaged in cyber-espionage operations, as opposed to research.

“The issue is operational activity — whether these research institutions have been involved in actual intelligence operations,” said James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That’s something the US does not do.”

“(In the US) there’s a clear line between an academic researcher and people engaged in operational (intelligence gathering) activities.”

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