The report, which represents the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, describes a wide range of sectors that have been the focus of hacking over the past five years, including energy, finance, information technology, aerospace and automotives, according to the individuals familiar with the report, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the classified document. The assessment does not quantify the financial impact of the espionage, but outside experts have estimated it in the tens of billions of dollars.
Cyber-espionage, which was once viewed as a concern mainly by U.S. intelligence and the military, is increasingly seen as a direct threat to the nation’s economic interests.
In a sign of such concerns, the Obama administration is seeking ways to counter the online theft of trade secrets, according to officials. Analysts have said that the administration’s options include formal protests, the expulsion of diplomatic personnel, the imposition of travel and visa restrictions, and complaints to the World Trade Organization.
Cyber-espionage is “just so widespread that it’s known to be a national issue at this point,” said one administration official, who like other current and former officials interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The National Intelligence Estimate names three other countries — Russia, Israel and France — as having engaged in hacking for economic intelligence but makes clear that cyber-espionage by those countries pales in comparison with China’s effort.
China has staunchly rejected such allegations, saying the Beijing government neither condones nor carries out computer hacking.
Dating to at least the early 1980s, China has made the acquisition of Western technology — through means licit and illicit — a centerpiece of its economic development planning. The explosion in computer use has greatly aided that transfer of technology.
China’s intelligence services, as well as private companies, frequently seek to exploit Chinese citizens or people with family ties to China who can use their insider access to U.S. corporate networks to steal trade secrets using thumb drives or e-mail, according to a report by the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive.
The National Intelligence Estimate comes at a time when the U.S. government is making a concerted effort to develop policies that address cyberthreats against the nation.
“We need the NIE on cyber for a systematic and comprehensive understanding of what the most dangerous technologies are, who are the most threatening actors and what are our greatest vulnerabilities,” said former deputy defense secretary William J. Lynn III, who requested the report in 2011 but has not seen or been briefed on the contents.