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Google's announcement last week followed revelations that its computers had been hacked. And Google said a primary goal of the attack had been to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. But the hackers also targeted many other companies. It was a case of industrial espionage.

As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, it may have been as much about stealing from rivals as snooping on dissidents.

TOM GJELTEN: For cyber espionage experts, the big news in Google's announcement came in one sentence. The company said the penetration of its computer system by Chinese hackers, quote, "resulted in the theft of intellectual property." Those words say a lot. Intellectual property means knowledge and ideas, what makes innovation possible - everything from secret formulas to computer codes. Google is among the most innovative companies on the planet and someone in China has been stealing its secrets.

James Mulvenon, a China expert at the Defense Group consultancy, thinks this is the real story behind Google's announced threat to pull out of China.

Dr. JAMES MULVENON (Director, Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, Defense Group Inc.): For Google to have made such a profound decision to turn its back on the fastest growing economy in the world, it had to have been more than a bunch of dissident email accounts.

GJELTEN: The background here is China's determination to catch up and pass its Western rivals economically and militarily. But it's an authoritarian country with a legal and economic environment not always conducive to creativity. It's hard to imagine a company like Google or Microsoft or Apple starting on its own in China. So, how can the Chinese develop cutting edge technology? Well, they can acquire it by whatever means necessary from the Western companies that already have it.

James Mulvenon says Google and other companies may be getting tired of the Chinese going after their assets.

Dr. MULVENON: Western multinational companies are just finding it increasingly hard to do business in China, make profit in China, when facing a government that is so systematically trying to transfer innovation to China, using, seemingly, every tool at its disposal to do that.

GJELTEN: Transferring innovation, from West to East. The official U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission recently highlighted what it said was China's increasingly aggressive efforts to obtain U.S. technology through stepped-up cyber theft.

Larry Wortzel, a longtime China espionage expert, is a commission member. He says the Chinese have penetrated many U.S. defense companies with the intention of stealing U.S. technology secrets.

Dr. LARRY WORTZEL (Vice Chairman, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission ): It saves them money. It saves them their own research and development effort. And it leapfrogs Chinese industries ahead, even though they may not have put the money into the research.

GJELTEN: Countries steal secrets from each other all the time. But the Chinese are virtually unmatched when it comes to cyber theft.

Mr. STEPHEN SPOONAMORE (CEO, ABS Materials): They are so sophisticated. They are so amazingly, complexly driven in the process.

GJELTEN: Stephen Spoonamore is a high-tech entrepreneur who's worked for years defending his clients from Chinese hackers. He's among the best in the business, but he's ready to give up. The Chinese are so good at breaking into other people's computer systems, he says, that it's almost impossible to keep them out.

Mr. SPOONAMORE: If you create 50 or 60 or 70 units of a few dozen very good hackers apiece and then you add rows and rows and rows of control room monitors...

GJELTEN: With techs watching the monitors to catch openings in your adversary's computer operations.

Mr. SPOONAMORE: If you pair those two things up and run it 24/7, you're going to win.

GJELTEN: The key question, of course, is who exactly is behind these attacks? Given speed-of-light transactions on the Internet, it's hard to identify the source of a cyber attack with certainty. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said circumstantial and forensic evidence strongly indicates the involvement of Chinese state or state-supported entities. Again, commission member Larry Wortzel.

Dr. WORTZEL: When you see human espionage directed against specific technologies like quiet submarine drive systems, like naval propulsion systems and cyber attacks to extract exactly the same information, a reasonable analyst would conclude that that's probably government-directed.

GJELTEN: Human spies and computer hackers looking for defense secrets at the same time. Who but a government would be directing an effort like that? It's a glimpse of 21st-century cyber warfare.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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