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China and its hacking prowess

Updated On: Sep 11, 2007

When the Chinese tested their satellite-busting missile technology no too long ago, states around the world, both superpowers and big power aspirants, watched in shock, admiration or a bit of both.

This time round, the Chinese have done it again, displaying their technological might in a spectacular fashion through their ability to hack into the computers of the US Pentagon, the British government as well as the German chancellor one after another within a short time. The Financial Times said on Tuesday that the Chinese People's Liberation Army hacked into a computer system in the office of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates in June 2007.

The attack, which was labeled as the most successful attack ever, forced officials to take down the network for more than a week, the paper said. US officials said that the downing of the network was needed to conduct a comprehensive diagnosis. The media reports seem to coincide with the previous Pentagon warning that China's army is emphasizing hacking as an offensive weapon with hacking 'primarily in first strikes against enemy networks'. Besides the mass attack software that shut down systems, the Chinese is said to have developed spying software in order to collect classified information. 

The main worry for US strategists is that China could develop a capability to disrupt US systems at critical times. China produces a large number of computer experts, forming a large pool from which the PLA can recruit from. Beijing also has major ambitions to develop key capabilities which can disrupt an enemy's command and control networks with the Chinese General Staff's Second and Third Departments placed in charge of these tasks. It is also possible that a 'Fourth Department' of the People's Liberation Army is developed for electronic warfare.

Mr Richard Lawless, the US Deputy Undersecretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs, claimed that China 'now has the capability to launch offensive operations' against global computer networks. 'These are multiple wake-up calls stirring us to levels of more aggressive vigilance,' said Mr Richard Lawless, the Pentagon's top Asiaofficial, at the time of the attacks.

The Pentagon has also taken steps to increase vigilance over unsecured e-mail systems. The National Security Council has also formed a White House team to examine whether there should be a need to restrict the use of BlackBerries because of cyber espionage. The Pentagon has also created a new cyberspace command to prepare the US for both offensive and defensive electronic operations.

The British also accused China of 'spying'. The Guardian newspaper of the UK reported that the Chinese (some of whom are military-linked) have launched online assaults against the network at Britain's Parliament and the Foreign Office, citing unnamed government officials. The British government refused to comment on the claim. 'We're just not getting into it,' the spokesman for the British Foreign Office said.

The Germans came up with their accusations of Chinese hacking on the eve of Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit to Beijing while the Americans followed just as Chinese President Hu Jintao was preparing to meet his UScounterpart George W. Bush. The weekly Der Spiegel said computers at the Chancellery and three ministries had been infected with so-called Trojans, or spy programmes. Germany's intelligence agency believed a group of hackers associated with the People's Liberation Army is responsible.

Joining in the latest chorus of accusations was the French. A Straits Times article on 11 September reported that Francis Delon, Secretary-General of French National Defence, claiming that information systems in France had been infiltrated by groups involving China, although he did no directly implicate the Chinese military. 

Western intelligence services have devoted an increasing amount of time and money to counter computer attacks, 80 per cent of which they believe originate from China. There is a concern amongst Western analysts that the Chinese military seems to engage in such operations without fear of the political consequences.

Western warnings are unlikely to stop China from continuing to invest heavily in cyber-warfare due to the new Chinese doctrine of 'pressure point warfare' (the development of particular technologies to eliminate an enemy's superiority). Officially, China denied the accusations and announced that it was willing to strengthen its cooperation with other countries to counter Internet crime.

China countered US accusations, calling them a product of 'Cold War' thinking. 'China has all along been opposed to and forbids criminal activities undermining computer networks, including hacking,' Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu said. Similarly, when Dr Angela Merkel, Germany's Chancellor, had raised reports of Chinese infiltration of German government computers with Mr Wen Jiabao, China's Premier, during her visit to Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said later that the government opposed and forbade 'any criminal acts undermining computer systems, including hacking'. 'We have explicit laws and regulations in this regard,' said Ms Jiang Yu, from the ministry. 'Hacking is a global issue and Chinais frequently a victim.'

Premier Wen gave the impression that the attacks may have been the work of isolated individuals. Some of these individuals may be 'patriotic hackers' who take it upon themselves to hack the electronic systems of China’s rivals. They were very much in play when US bombers accidentally hit the Chinese embassy in Yugoslaviain 1999 and also China’s anger at Japanese perspective of WWII history. If this were true, some argue that such activities could not have take place without the knowledge of China's cyber-policemen or censors.

Counter-arguments have also arisen from experts who said that China hosts a large number of unsecure computers and networks that hackers in other countries could use as platforms to disguise their locations and launch attacks. In addition, US officials have admitted that the hacked data was probably 'unclassified'. In addition, the Pentagon itself is said to scan Chinese networks. Criminal groups may sometimes masked cyber attacks to make it appear they came from government computers in a particular country.

Finally, another counter argument against Chinese hacker activities is that this appears to be a well coordinated campaign by the West to warn China through precise and well-informed officially-authorised leaks designed to embarrass Chinese top officials. This is also an indirect protestation by Western governments to warn of their decreasing tolerance of exponentially rising Chinese cyber attacks. (11 September 2007)

Sources:

France latest to accuse of Chinese hacking (Straits Times, 11 September 2007)

Rules of spying in cyberspace (Straits Times, 8 September 2007)

Beijing's growing cyber-expertise (Straits Times, 5 September 2007)

China 'hacked into Pentagon network' (Straits Times, 5 September 2007)

Chinese hackers attacked Britain's govt websites (Straits Times, 5 September 2007)

China hacked into Pentagon computer network (AFP, 4 September 2007)