Wednesday, February 17, 2010

China: Cyber Warriors


The Chinese military’s main and unconcealed ambition is to someday be strong enough to take Taiwan by force if it had to. But the details of the balance of power between mainland and Taiwanese forces, across the Straits of Taiwan, have been minutely scrutinized by all parties for decades, and shifts will not happen by surprise. The annual reports from the Pentagon and the Security Review Commission lay out other possible scenarios for conflict, but in my experience it is rare to hear U.S. military or diplomatic officials talk about war with China as a plausible threat. “My view is that the political leadership is principally focused on creating new jobs inside the country,” I was told by retired Admiral Mike McConnell, a former head of the National Security Agency and the director of national intelligence under George W. Bush. Another former U.S. official put it this way: “We tend to think of everything about China as being multiplied by 1.3 billion. The Chinese leadership has to think of everything as being divided by 1.3 billion”—jobs, houses, land. Russell Leigh Moses, who has lived in China for years and lectures at programs to train Chinese officials, notes that the Chinese military, like its counterparts everywhere, is “determined not to be neglected.” But “so many problems occupy the military itself—including learning how to play the political game—that there is no consensus to take on the U.S.”

Yes, circumstances could change, and someday there could be a consensus to “take on the U.S.” But the more you hear about the details, the harder it is to worry seriously about that now. So why should we worry? After conducting this round of interviews, I now lose sleep over something I’d generally ignored: the possibility of a “cyberwar” that could involve attacks from China—but, alarmingly, could also be launched by any number of other states and organizations.

The cyber threat is the idea that organizations or individuals may be spying on, tampering with, or preparing to inflict damage on America’s electronic networks. Google’s recent announcement of widespread spying “originating from China” brought attention to a problem many experts say is sure to grow. China has hundreds of millions of Internet users, mostly young. In any culture, this would mean a large hacker population; in China, where tight control and near chaos often coexist, it means an Internet with plenty of potential outlaws and with carefully directed government efforts, too. In a report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission late last year, Northrop Grumman prepared a time line of electronic intrusions and disruptions coming from sites inside China since 1999. In most cases it was impossible to tell whether the activity was amateur or government-planned, the report said. But whatever their source, the disruptions were a problem. And in some instances, the “depth of resources” and the “extremely focused targeting of defense engineering data, US military operational information, and China-related policy information” suggested an effort that would be “difficult at best without some type of state-sponsorship.”


Next, the authorities stressed that Chinese organizations and individuals were a serious source of electronic threats—but far from the only one, or perhaps even the main one. You could take this as good news about U.S.-China relations, but it was usually meant as bad news about the problem as a whole. “The Chinese would be in the top three, maybe the top two, leading problems in cyberspace,” James Lewis, a former diplomat who worked on security and intelligence issues and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, told me. “They’re not close to being the primary problem, and there is debate about whether they’re even number two.” Number one in his analysis is Russia, through a combination of state, organized-criminal, and unorganized-individual activity. Number two is Israel—and there are more on the list. “The French are notorious for looking for economic advantage through their intelligence system,” I was told by Ed Giorgio, who has served as the chief code maker and chief code breaker for the National Security Agency. “The Israelis are notorious for looking for political advantage. We have seen Brazil emerge as a source of financial crime, to join Russia, which is guilty of all of the above.” Interestingly, no one suggested that international terrorist groups—as opposed to governments, corporations, or “normal” criminals—are making significant use of electronic networks to inflict damage on Western targets, although some groups rely on the Internet for recruitment, organization, and propagandizing.

This led to another, more surprising theme: that the main damage done to date through cyberwar has involved not theft of military secrets nor acts of electronic sabotage but rather business-versus-business spying.


The final theme was that even though these cyber concerns are not confined to China, the Chinese aspects do deserve consideration on their own, because China’s scale, speed of growth, and complex relationship with the United States make it a unique case. Hackers in Russia or Israel might be more skillful one by one, but with its huge population China simply has more of them. The French might be more aggressive in searching for corporate secrets, but their military need not simultaneously consider how to stop the Seventh Fleet.


Really good article that works to separate some of the FUD from the real possible threats. I say some of the FUD, only because it is almost always impossible to hear the words "cyberwar" without a little FUD attached ;)

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