U.S. authorities are investigating whether Chinese officials secretly copied the contents of a government laptop computer during a visit to China by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and used the information to try to hack into Commerce computers, officials and industry experts said.
Surreptitious copying is believed to have occurred when a laptop was left unattended during Gutierrez's trip to Beijing for trade talks in December, people familiar with the incident told The Associated Press.
These people spoke on condition of anonymity because the incident was under investigation.
Gutierrez said Thursday he could not discuss whether or how the laptop's contents might have been copied.
"To the extent that there is an investigation going on," he said, "those are the things being looked at, those are the questions being asked. I don't think I should provide any speculative answers."
A Commerce Department spokesman, Rich Mills, said he could not confirm or deny such an incident in China.
Asked whether the department has issued new rules for carrying computers overseas, Mills said: "The department is continuing to improve our security posture, and that includes providing updates, guidances and best practices to staff to maintain security."
It was not immediately clear what information on the laptop might have been compromised, but it would be highly unorthodox for any U.S. government official to carry classified data on a laptop overseas to China, especially one left unattended even briefly. Modern copying equipment can duplicate a laptop's storage drive in just minutes.
The report of the incident is the latest in a series of cybersecurity problems blamed on China and comes at a sensitive time, with looming trade issues between the countries and special attention on China over the Summer Olympics.
Gutierrez returned just weeks ago from another trip to Beijing, where he noted he had traveled to "more than to any other foreign city during my tenure as commerce secretary."
In the period after Gutierrez returned from China in December, the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team - known as US-CERT, some of the government's leading computer forensic experts - rushed to the Commerce Department on at least three occasions to respond to serious attempts at data break-ins, officials told the AP.
"There's nothing to substantiate an actual compromise at this time," said Russ Knocke, spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. Knocke said he was unable to find records of a DHS investigation.
He said US-CERT workers have visited the Commerce Department eight times since December, but none of those visits was related to laptops or the secretary's trip to China. He said the US-CERT organization works routinely with all U.S. agencies. The FBI declined to comment.
It wasn't clear whether leaving the laptop unattended violated U.S. government rules. Some agencies, such as Homeland Security, routinely provide officials with sanitized laptops to carry on trips overseas and require them to leave in the United States their everyday laptops, which might contain sensitive information.
The Pentagon, State Department and Commerce Department all have been victimized by widespread computer intrusions blamed on China since July 2006.