The Chinese government has arrested a number of hackers at the request of the US government in a bid to halt rising cybercrime tension between the two nations.
A report in The Washington Post said that the hackers were arrested prior to Chinese president Xi Jinping's state visit to the White House last month after being identified by US law enforcement as having stolen data from a number of US firms with the intention of passing it to Chinese state-run companies.
It is unclear whether the arrests are related to a case last May when the US charged five Chinese nationals for hacking into high-profile computer networks.
The arrests correlate with remarks by US president Barack Obama, who has become increasingly outspoken about Chinese cyber operations and is moving towards the threat of economic sanctions as a direct response.
Yet in a landmark move, the US and Chinese governments met during the state visit to sign a so-called cyber peace treaty, pledging a broad agreement that neither country would engage in cyber espionage or attacks against critical infrastructure such as power stations, banking systems, telecoms networks and hospitals.
The Washington Post said that it has not been confirmed whether the arrested hackers were part of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), which is regularly accused of carrying out sophisticated and persistent cyber breaches against US networks.
Recent cyber activity, allegedly originating from China, has resulted in the loss of significant amounts of sensitive US data. The US Office of Personnel Management upped the scope of an investigation last month into a major cyber breach, revealing that 5.6 million federal fingerprint records were lost to hackers.
The news comes as a Chinese envoy called for the establishment of an international ‘code of conduct' in cyber space.
Wang Qun, director-general of the arms control department of the Chinese foreign ministry, made the announcement at the UN General Assembly, calling for a number of cyber security rules to be established.
Wang said that nations participating in the cyber treaty would have "to resolve the international disputes in this field by peaceful means" and that cyber space should not be used as a means to "interfere in the internal affairs of other states".
"Cyber security has become a prominent and sensitive issue which is increasingly higher on international security agendas with a closer link between cyber space and the real world we are living in," he said.
"Against such a backdrop, it is highly necessary and pressing for the international community to jointly bring about an international code of conduct on cyber space at an early date."
However, not everyone is convinced that an agreement will put a stop to the hacking.
Leo Taddeo, a former FBI cyber expert and current chief security officer at Cryptzone, said in a recent interview with V3 that the truce is a largely ceremonial affair.
"I think that both countries will continue to talk about it, but the fact is that it serves the Chinese interest to target [US] networks. They are going to do a very sober cost/benefit analysis and, until we reach a point where it's not serving their interest, they will continue to do it," he said.
This sentiment is echoed by Mikko Hyppönen, chief research officer at security firm F-Secure, who welcomed the start of the international discussions but warned that cybercrime will get worse before it gets better.
"We have to start talking about rules of engagement. We have to start talking about minimising risk to third parties, about attribution of cyber arms. We have to start by putting it on the table and discussing it," he said.
"It's not going to happen any time soon. In fact we have only seen the very beginning of the cyber arms race. It's going to get much bigger and more active until it gets better."
Nevertheless, evidence suggests that the tension resulting from cybercrime is causing China and the US to up their games when it comes to combating the threat, the catalyst being when the US Department of Justice charged five Chinese officials with snooping on US firms in May last year.
Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu and Gu Chunhui were named in police documentation at the time as defendants and listed as officers in Unit 61398 of the Third Department of the PLA.
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