"The fact they targeted Tibetan activists is a strong indicator of official Chinese government involvement," said James A. Lewis, a former diplomat and expert in computer security who is a director and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "A private Chinese hacker may go after economic data but not a political organization."
The person who used the alias, "scuhkr" - the researchers said in an interview that it could be shorthand for Sichuan University hacker - wrote articles about hacking, which were posted to online hacking forums and, in one case, recruited students to a computer network and defense research program at Sichuan University's Institute of Information Security in 2005, the report said.
The New York Times traced that alias to Mr. Gu. According to online records, Mr. Gu studied at Sichuan University from 2003 to 2006, when he wrote numerous articles about hacking under the names of "scuhkr" and Gu Kaiyuan. Those included a master's thesis about computer attacks and prevention strategies. The Times connected Mr. Gu to Tencent first through an online university forum, which listed where students found jobs, and then through a call to Tencent.
The attacks are technically similar to a spy operation known as the Shadow Network, which since 2009 has targeted the government of India and also pilfered a year's worth of the Dalai Lama's personal e-mails. Trend Micro's researchers found that the command-and-control servers directing the Shadow Network attacks also directed the espionage in its report.
"It suggested there may be a marketplace for freelance work - that this is not a 9-to-5 work environment," Mr. Stewart said. "It's a smart way to do business. If you are a country attacking a foreign government and you don't want it tied back, it would make sense to outsource the work to actors who can collect the data for you."
"This was not an individual attack that started and stopped," said Nart Villeneuve, a researcher that helped lead Trend Micro's efforts. "It's a continuous campaign that has been going on for a long time. There are constant compromises going on all time. These guys are busy and stay busy."