EDITORIAL: Will the White House Finally Grow the Backbone to Digitally Counterattack China?
January 31, 2013 5:50 PM
Hack on The New York Times is latest incident to illustrate China's dominance in the new era of warfare, and the U.S.'s inaction
In the campy remake of the 1980s classic
, MGM last year recast the titular enemy as not the Soviet-era Russians, but the Chinese. The movie may have been panned, but it did have one thing going for it -- it was uncomfortably close to reality.
I. A New War
China is unlikely to ever raise its guns or tank barrels on the U.S. It does not need to. The ultimate goal of all conquest is money, power, and influence. Today we stand on the brink of a new age, an age in which warfare has moved from trodden soil into the buried tracts of internet cable beneath it.
Today any country still has to deal with the far more familiar face of physical threats, be it "terrorists" or domestic dissidents. These threats will surely persist for a time, as much of the world -- for example, large tracts of the Middle East -- still exists in a pre-industrialized state. Even in regions with some digital capabilities like Iran, access is stifled under crippling walls of censorship and poverty, leading citizens to take up traditional, terrible blood-filled methods of conflict.
But if we listen careful, we hear the sound of change. The time of physical battles is coming to an end. Because in every way digital war is far superior to the wars of yore.
The era of digital war has dawned. [Image Source: Interplay (cover art for
In digital war, a wily adversary can cover their tracks. They can attack silently behind a wall of official denials, while tasting the sweet spoils of conquest. They don't have to face the public relations backlash that bombs and missiles evoke.
In traditional war, even the victor is left with a terrible legacy. To borrow a crude analogy, they may eat cake, but they must pay dearly for the cake. In digital war, the cake is free. The cake is on the house.
II. Not a Gentleman's War
We are in the early stage of the era of cyberwarfare, an era that overlaps with the closing of the era of traditional warfare. And the dawn of the new epoch marks the end of a cherished comfort of the last several decades -- the "gentleman's war".
Certainly, in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the countries on the receiving end of aggression by the U.S. or Russia were in some ways as bloody as the scores of decades before. But there was a small comfort in that the people running these wars were refined, educated sorts. They might harbor as much malice as their brutish predecessors, but they masked it under layers of refinement, and to some extent even if the idea of the gentleman's war was a mere charade the actors did begin to believe their art to be reality. Officers did become more respectful and atrocities by the "civilized" powers proved fewer and more far between.
Washington D.C. is still stuck behind the outdated ideal of a gentleman's war in the digital era.
[Image Source: U.S. Congress]
But the dawn of cyberwar invites the dark characters in society back to the party. The ideal warrior in ancient times was obedient to his master to a degree, but had a powerful body, good instincts, and a ruthless, malicious bloodlust.
Similarly, cyberwar in its early stages won't be dominated by the "gentlemen" of our time; it will be fought and won by the darkest of digital barbarians, the blackest of black hats. In the U.S. we tend to perceive black hat hackers as a force working against the government interest. In reality, this situation exists simply because the U.S. does not make great efforts to court its most malicious, destructive black hat hackers.
The U.S. falsely believes that the era of digital warfare will be polite and civil. Its digital legion is largely filled with book-educated upstanding young men and women, many of which never broke through a firewall or cracked a password they hadn't been permitted to in their lives. These people will be ill prepared to face what is to come.
But a greater problem is that the controlling powers of the U.S. government -- Congress and the White House -- refuse to acknowledge that we're at war and that our enemy also happens to be our second largest trading partner, a rather awkward arrangement.
III. The New York Times is the Latest Victim of Chinese Cyberwarfare Unit
Across the Pacific Ocean, about 2,500 years ago, a brilliant strategist named Sun Tzu was born in the empire than would one day be known as China. Today, it is perhaps unsurprising that the land that gave rise to one of the world's most brightest military minds of all time today is the
The New York Times
that it had been attack by hackers, which its security contractor Mandiat traced with high likelihood to an elite Chinese cyberwarfare unit, likely housed with in People's Liberation Army. The attack was precipitated by
chronicling how the family of Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao had accumulated a fortune worth $2.7B in U.S. dollars, a fortune which they are hiding behind friends and shadowy partnerships.
The New York Times is China's latest victim. [Image Source: AllThingsD]
The honesty and detail of
response was unusual and refreshing. Most corporations have sought to deny such reports to save face. The Times was blunt -- they were attacked in their own headline's words by "hackers in China". But as unusual as that proclamation was, the attack itself was not really that unusual.
I have covered cybersecurity for five years. And while my vision pales in comparison to the likes of author William Gibson, who first speculated cyberwar in his science fiction masterpiece
, I can see some things clearly. And I have seen that
we are at war
IV. Trail of Casualties Grows Long, as U.S. Refuses to Fight Back Decisively
intrusion was not the first attack on U.S. journalism, and it will not be the last.
report cited sources as saying a similar attack occurred against
last summer, following a similar exposé.
repelling a major attack
from Chinese IPs in the wake of a story about Tibet. In 2011, Chinese hackers
struck at online petition site Change.org
after a petition was launched to free an imprisoned Chinese artist. That same year
Chinese hackers struck Google
) Gmail service, looking to scoop the accounts of Tibetan dissidents. China's state-run newspaper mouthpiece then
proceeded to threaten Google
for stating the obvious -- that the attacks originated from Chinese IPs.
financial institutions and research firms
have been targeted. Secrets have been stolen, which could richly reward the Chinese financially.
State-sponsored Chinese hackers have allegedly attacked a deluge of U.S. targets.
[Image Source: Asia Society]
Lockheed Martin Corp. (
) -- a top defense contractor -- was reportedly
infiltrated by Chinese hackers
in 2011. Lockheed never officially acknowledged the much-publicized incident, but in 2012 it did warn that its subcontractors
were being targeted
by similar efforts. Mandiat suggests that "several" top defense contractors have had intrusions in recent years.
U.S. Chamber of Commerce
was hacked with Chinese IPs communicating with infected thermostats and internet printers. The
U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration
has been hacked
. U.S. Embassies
have been attacked
U.S. Department of Defense
by persistent attacks
by the Chinese
. The White House's
have been attacked.
V. Who's Lying? The U.S. or China?
Reportedly, China embraces those ill elements of its society, as outline above -- the most ruthless black hats -- delicately courting them and funneling their destructive expertise against their economic and ideological rival, the U.S.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) amusingly asserted as recently as 2011 that China was "
20 years behind
" the U.S. in military technology. Perhaps that is an honest assessment if one considers the official face of China's military -- traditional weaponry.
But China's most deadly weapon to American freedom and to the American economy is one it refuses to acknowledge -- its elite team of hackers. In a response to
piece, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei
in Beijing, "The competent Chinese authorities have already issued a clear response to the groundless accusations made by the New York Times. To arbitrarily assert and to conclude without hard evidence that China participated in such hacking attacks is totally irresponsible. China is also a victim of hacking attacks. Chinese laws clearly forbid hacking attacks, and we hope relevant parties takes a responsible attitude on this issue."
Clearly, someone is lying.
Or more aptly put, either the Chinese government is lying, or a whole bunch of prestigious U.S. institutions have formed some bizarre league of deceit.
is the most read metropolitan newspaper in the U.S. and has won more Pulitzer Prizes (108) for journalism than any other newspaper.
VI. U.S. Security Witnesses a Rape
But if you don't trust them, what about the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA)?
U.S. Cyber Command
leader and NSA director
Gen. Keith Alexander
made the information public on Tuesday in a briefing to the
Senate Armed Services Committee
, in which he testified, "I can't go into the specifics here, but we do see [thefts] from defense industrial base companies. There are some very public [attacks], though. The most recent one was the RSA exploits."
"We need to make it more difficult for the Chinese to do what they're doing. Intellectual property isn't well protected, and we can do a better job at protecting it."
The U.S. Cyber Command has been unable to effectively counterattack China. [Image Source: Reuters]
A VP at a top security firm Intel Corp. (
) subsidiary McAfee likens one such digital campaign, which sources trace to China, as digital "rape". Yet, the U.S. government sits largely idle as it and its people are attacked.
To be fair, the White House and Congress have both expressed some interest in development defensive capabilities and word is offense is also on the table. But currently the number of staffers is telling -- the U.S. Cyber Command only employs
around 500 brave souls
. That number will rise to 4,500 in the next few years, but that is simply not enough.
VII. Constitution Demands Self-Defense
The U.S. is at war. And fumbling in responsive defense measures is not acceptable. Digital dragonfire must be met with fire.
The U.S. is perfectly capable of unleashing a powerful and unaccountable digital counterattack on China. Simply allocate money to some ambiguous defense fund. Hire black hats. Route your attacks through multiple domestic and then local foreign IPs. Attack relentlessly. (That's what China does.)
It might cost $50B USD, it might cost $500B USD, but when you're at war, if you worry too much about costs you find yourself under the boot. And the U.S. is treading dangerously to meeting that fate.
The Constitution is unequivocal in what the government's duty is.
Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution
, the foundation of the U.S. government, clearly grants Congress the power:
[Image Source: EL Civics]
The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;
To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
To provide and maintain a navy;
To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;
To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
The U.S. Congress has been
ineffectual in legislating funding
and creating proposals outlining a sensible digital "common Defense" of the nation -- i.e. a "militia" (say, competent contracted security officials) or a digital age army (such as
China has built
In other words, when it comes to their Constitutional responsibility to protect the U.S. against invasions -- including cyberinvasions -- both parties in Congress have failed. The White House and Congressional Republicans and Democrats have largely failed (thus far) their oath to uphold one of the most important principals of the Constitution -- national defense.
But the blame rests partially on the American people and media.
, countless security firms, and many brave voices in the government itself are liars. Or we're at war. It is a new kind of war, but don't be mistaken -- it is a war still.
The media and the American people must demand a response. The days of bowing to China must end. China may be our second largest trade partner and intimately tied to the U.S. economy, but we are just as crucial to China and yet they have no problem silently attacking. So why should we?
Is it somewhat immoral for the government to attack China and then lie about it, if asked? Maybe by some absolute judgment. But until the world finds a higher moral ground, the U.S. must defend itself in whatever way necessary. War, after all, is an ugly thing, and will be in the digital era.
AFP on Google News
"A politician stumbles over himself... Then they pick it out. They edit it. He runs the clip, and then he makes a funny face, and the whole audience has a Pavlovian response." -- Joe Scarborough on John Stewart over Jim Cramer
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