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Top Chinese university suspected of ties to army’s cyberspy unit

A Chinese People's Liberation Army soldier stands guard in front of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit, in the outskirts of Shanghai, February 19, 2013. The unit is believed to be behind a series of hacking attacks, a U.S. computer security company said.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

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 cyberwar 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 cyberespionage – and faculty at Shanghai Jiao Tong 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 Jiao Tong is in contrast to common practice in most developed nations, where university professors in recent decades have been reluctant to co-operate with operational intelligence-gathering units.

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The issue of cybersecurity is testing ties between the world's two biggest economies, prompting U.S. 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 cyberattacks from the United States.

There is no evidence to suggest any Shanghai Jiao Tong academics who co-authored papers with Unit 61398 worked with anyone directly engaged in cyberespionage 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 in Washington. "That's something the U.S. does not do.

"[In the U.S.], there's a clear line between an academic researcher and people engaged in operational [intelligence gathering] activities."

Last month, Mandiant Corp., a private U.S.-based security firm, accused China's military of cyberespionage on U.S. and other English-speaking companies, identifying Unit 61398 and its location at a building on the outskirts of Shanghai. China said the report was baseless and lacked "technical proof."

In reviewing the links between the PLA and Shanghai Jiao Tong – whose alumni include former president Jiang Zemin, the head of China's top automaker and the former CEO of its most popular Internal portal – Reuters found at least three papers on cyberwarfare on a document-sharing website that were co-authored by university faculty members and PLA researchers.

The papers, on network security and attack detection, state on their title pages they were written by Unit 61398 researchers and professors at Shanghai Jiao Tong's School of Information Security Engineering (SISE).

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SISE says on its website its goal is to speed up the development of China's information-security sector and address the national shortage of information-security professionals.

Set amid manicured lawns, Shanghai Jiao Tong University is one of China's top four colleges, turning out brilliant technical engineers much in demand by both domestic companies and foreign multinationals. Its reputation has led to tie-ups with elite universities abroad.

Shanghai Jiao Tong, which is not officially linked to China's military, set up a joint institute in China's second city in 2006 with the University of Michigan – seeking, it says on its website, to "develop innovative and highly reputable education and research programs in various engineering fields." A spokesman for the U.S. college said it has no relationship with SISE. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh also had a partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong's School of Electronic, Information and Electrical Engineering, and Singapore Management University said it ended a tie-up with SISE last June.

Among the industries in the United States allegedly targeted by Unit 61398, as recently as last year according to Mandiant, is transportation, including the auto sector.

The University of Michigan collaborates closely with Detroit-based automakers on research projects, and is one of three colleges that comprise the University Research Corridor, which spent $300-million on R&D projects over the last five years.

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