Cyber Tensions Flare Amongst U.S., Chinese Military
March 12, 2008 5:28 PM
Reports claim the U.S. and Chinese armed forces have begun to wage an escalating, silent war on the internet
Surveillance and subterfuge are timeless traditions. In ancient Japan, daimyo ninjas carried out dangerous spy missions to the highest bidder. Their surveillance missions and assasinations created fear and chaos within their enemies.
More recently in the days of the Cold War, espionage expanded to an unprecedented scale as the CIA and Britain's MI6 waged silent war against the Soviet Union's KGB agents. Telephoto cameras, spy planes and phone bugs were the most high-tech tools employed for monitoring.
Today a new war of intelligence has begun, this time online. China, the world's most populus nation, began to exert its digital will. The U.S. military reported numerous successful attacks on Defense Department computers originating from China. While the U.S. military has not put it in these exact words, it indicates that the U.S. is on the verge of entering into a digital war with the Chinese government, much akin to the war of surveillance which occurred against Russia during the Cold War era.
The Defense department reported multiple attacks over the course of the last year. Among them was a successful June 2007 system
penetration which shutdown Homeland Security networks and potentially compromised sensitive data
. The Department of Homeland security traced the attacks back to the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) and blamed the breach on
lax security standards at the government contractor Unisys
. Unisys was not alone though -- in Fall 2006 hackers gained access to the Naval War College's computer network and temporarily crippled it. And also in June of last year, another attack gained access to the unclassified Pentagon email system used by the offices of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The email system had to be taken offline and reworked.
Some of these attacks likely were launched by China's burgeoning free lance hacker community.
, in a meeting with high profile Chinese hackers, recently discussed the attacks. Several of the hackers claimed knowledge of friends in the Chinese underground hacking community who launched successful assaults on the Pentagon. More interestingly, the hackers reported the
Chinese government subsidized them for successful attacks
. While the Chinese government ardently denies such claims it appears, much like Japanese warlords used the ninjas of old, the Chinese government is employing these legions of hackers to create chaos and steal information on U.S. networks -- for a price.
Meanwhile, according to U.S. intelligence, the PLA is building up its own force of elite hackers to wage cyberwarfare. A Pentagon report,
released this month
notes that China is expanding its military presence in "the land, air and sea dimensions of the traditional battlefield into the space and cyber-space domains." Further, it notes, "The PLA has established information-warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks, and tactics and measures to protect friendly computer systems and network."
The Chinese foreign ministry and its spokesman Gang Qin dismissed these intelligence assessments, calling them paranoid and misleading. Gang stated in recent public comments that the U.S. needs "to drop its Cold War mentality."
However, few familiar with China's military efforts can deny that its cyber-warfare efforts seem particularly active. General Kevin Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command in Bellevue, Nebraska, stated, "The thing about China that gives you pause is that they've written openly about their emphasis in particular areas -- space and cyberspace ... you can kind of connect the dots."
The government is also very concerned about possible attacks on vulnerable civilian infrastructure such as power and water treatment plants. In October 2006, according to U.S. Government Accountability Office reports, a Harrisburg, Pa., computer was hacked and software was planted that could affect the plant's water processing. It has not been officially stated whether the attack originated from inside or outside the country.
In a statement to reporters Chilton indicated that despite China's dismissive attitude, the country is entering into a Cold War-esque digital intelligence campaign against the U.S. He says its efforts focus on breaching U.S. military networks and mining data which can be used to steal weapons designs, monitor command decisions, and monitor the U.S. armed forces' state of combat readiness. He states, "Twenty years ago you'd have hired somebody to go in the middle of the night with a flashlight in their teeth to open the drawer and do a bunch of photography of files. [Today] you can do it from your home country, wherever it might be."
General Chilton also fears that future attacks may focus on crippling entire military systems, leaving entire armed forces branches without communications. He points to such an attack against Estonia's government in the Spring of 2007, effectively shutting down the majority of Estonia's government networks. General Chilton stated, "You don't shut the system down completely, but you slow it down. I would consider that an attack."
The U.S. is not alone in its belief that China is flexing its cyber-spy muscle. The United Kingdom has accused the Chinese Army of directly trying to
infiltrate British networks and steal information
, including personal financial information. It has distributed letters of warning to various financial institutions.
It will likely be virtually impossible for civilians to determine when exactly the cyberwar between China and the U.S. begins. It appears, however, the first shots have already been fired and with reports of attacks and buildup mounting, it is clear that we are heading towards a silent cyberwar with China, if we are not engaged in one already.
"We are going to continue to work with them to make sure they understand the reality of the Internet. A lot of these people don't have Ph.Ds, and they don't have a degree in computer science." -- RIM co-CEO Michael Lazaridis
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