News / USA

Hacking: Not Just China

Part of the building of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit believed to be behind a series of hacking attacks, is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, February 19, 2013.Part of the building of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit believed to be behind a series of hacking attacks, is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, February 19, 2013.
x
Part of the building of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit believed to be behind a series of hacking attacks, is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, February 19, 2013.
Part of the building of 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit believed to be behind a series of hacking attacks, is seen in the outskirts of Shanghai, February 19, 2013.
Computer hacking by the Chinese has been causing a stir in recent weeks, but experts warn that focusing too much on Beijing could open the door to cyber spies from other countries the U.S. government is monitoring.

For example, the most recent National Intelligence Estimate, a classified document said to represent a consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, named Russia, Israel and France, in addition to China, as leading countries engaged in hacking against U.S. targets for economic gain.

“In my opinion, while China is getting, and may even deserve, the lion’s share of the attention, they are not the only ones dabbling in cyber mischief,” said Christopher Burgess, author of Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Economic Espionage and Intellectual Property Theft in the 21st Century.

Narrowly focusing on China can have negative consequences, says Jeffrey Carr, founder and CEO of Taia Group, a cybersecurity firm, who wrote a blog post critical of a recent, and oft-cited study by the computer security firm, Mandiant, that focused on China’s hacking capabilities.

Carr said always blaming China, could cause “unnecessary ramping up of tensions” between the two rivals. He also said a narrow focus on China gives an “inaccurate picture of the global threat landscape, which leads to poor defense planning.” Finally, he said, too much emphasis on China could give “companies a false sense of security when they operate in countries besides China.”

Russia, for example, reportedly pulled off two very high-profile cyber attacks in recent years. In 2007, after a row with Estonia, cyber attacks said to be from Russia shut down Estonian government, media and financial computers. In 2008, during the South Ossetia War, Georgian computers faced similar attacks. The two incidents were enough for the U.S. Army to commission a paper analyzing the Russian cyber threat.

Late last year, Iran was seen as the likely culprit in a cyber attack on the Saudi oil industry, which brought down computers and even affected some U.S. financial institutions. In the wake of the attack, U.S Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned of a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”

Iran also has been the victim of cyber attack. It is widely believed the U.S. and Israel were behind the so-called Stuxnet worm that damaged key components of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The U.S. also was accused of hacking into the Elysée Palace computers in May of last year just before François Hollande succeeded Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France. The U.S. denied the charges.

Massive, Noisy, Familiar

The cost of cybercrime is a hotly debated topic, but there’s no doubt it costs the U.S. economy billions. And while other countries may be more discreet in their hacking activities, China appears to be comfortable conducting at least some of their cyber espionage in what experts call a “noisy” manner, meaning they’re not careful to cover their footprints.

Matthew Aid, an intelligence historian, said the Chinese have operated over the past decade “as if they don't care who knows what they are doing,” which he says probably represents the mindset of the generals who run the cyber espionage programs.

“This may, in part, be a reflection of the enormous pressure the Chinese intelligence 'mandarins' have been under from their political masters in Beijing to produce all of the commercial data needed to push forward the Chinese economy and spot opportunities for growth outside of China,” he said. “The Chinese perhaps calculated that the U.S. and other western nations would not do anything about their spying activities because of China's enormous new economic power on the world stage and Washington's need for Chinese cooperation on global issues like North Korea and Iran.”

Because Chinese cyber espionage can be noisy and easily discovered, experts say at least some of China’s activities in cyberspace are easy to understand because they’re familiar and persistent.

“I think in terms of sheer volume [China’s threat] is not an exaggeration, but it’s too simplistic,” said Aid. “It’s easy to make the Chinese the bogeyman. We know a great deal more about them, but we know so much less about Russia, Israel, France and Iran.”

It’s possible, Aid added, that Russia in particular may be even more successful than the Chinese because “they’ve been able to remain secret and covert.”

And while China is certainly on everyone’s mind now, Burgess said governments and corporations need to realize that a cyber threat can come from anywhere.
 
“The prudent strategy is prepare for all who may attack your infrastructure and be pleasantly surprised when they don't, and prepared if they do,” he said.

He also added that China’s noise is likely masking more sophisticated, quiet efforts.

Badge of Honor

It used to be a stigma for a U.S. company to be hacked by China, but as China’s stature has risen, more and more companies are coming forward claiming they’ve been hacked by the Chinese as some kind of badge of honor.

Recently, many U.S. media outlets, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and the Washington Post, have all claimed to have been hacked by the Chinese.

Carr relates the story of a client whose company was hacked by the Chinese.

The company computers were infiltrated, he said, after an executive visited China and returned to the U.S. The hack was cleaned up, but the executive went back to China, this time with a clean laptop.

“That was breached when he was asleep in his hotel room,” Carr said. “One of the executives for the company later said ‘our work has never been in the limelight. We’ve gotten some kind of status. All of a sudden, we matter.’”

Carr said that kind of thinking struck him as “weird.”

“If you had your choice of being hacked by Slovakia or China, the latter is much more interesting,” he said.

Nothing new

China’s aims are nothing new, says Burgess, citing the 863 Program, created by China in March of 1986 with the goal of identifying needed technologies -- and either developing them domestically or, as a 2011 report by the National Counterintelligence Executive said, “to clandestinely acquire U.S. technology and sensitive economic information.”

Aid said China has become “reasonably good at producing on a Detroit-style mass production basis vast amounts of foreign economic intelligence information by exploiting weaknesses in computer software and security systems.”

”You cannot measure the success or failure of Chinese espionage by our standards,” he said. “You have to try to put yourself in the shoes of the Chinese political leadership in Beijing, who perhaps feel that they have a narrow window of opportunity to work with, and who still fear the U.S. is still a substantial military power in East Asia, and the recent trends of pivoting U.S. national security strategy away from South Asia towards East Asia.”

Cover, for Now

Not only does China engage in massive cyber espionage, but the scale of it could very well allow other states to conduct their own spying behind the Chinese flag. In the short term, China may very well be doing Israel, France, Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran, a favor.

“China is the best cover there is in the world for acts of cyber espionage,” said Carr. “Every foreign intelligence service should set up a front business in Shanghai or Beijing for that very reason.”

According to Burgess, a would-be cyber thief would not even have to physically be in China.

“I can make that connection bounce all over the world and you’re not going to be able to pinpoint where I’m coming from,” he said. “I can be sitting in Munich and make it look like like I’m in Beijing.”

Carr wondered why other states active in cyber espionage are never caught.

“It's not because they do it less, or because China is incompetent at it,” he said. “It could be because they are using China for cover. It could be because the Chinese government isn't involved at all; that it is the work of professional hacker crews who are Chinese, Eastern European, Brazilian, etc. and who then sell the information to China and/or other nation states. How is it that they’ve never one time discovered Russia, France or Israel doing these things? How can that happen, statistically speaking. I don’t understand.”

Over the long term, there could, however, be a silver lining to the Chinese cyber espionage story.

“The Chinese have done us a great service by making plain the nature and extent of the cyber threat that the U.S. and its allies face from countries such as, but not limited to, China,” said Aid. “With recognition of the threat comes the inevitable move to strengthen our cyber defenses, which not only will inevitably strangle off many of the most productive cyber targets that the Chinese have been exploiting, but also in the process kill off many of the targets in the U.S., Europe and Japan that Russia, France, and Israel have been more secretly monitoring for their own intelligence purposes.

“In effect,” Carr concluded, “the Chinese have queered the pitch for all the other nations that were quietly using cyber espionage to gather needed economic and political intelligence on the U.S. and its allies.”

You May Like

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: WoW from: USA
February 22, 2013 11:30 AM
Wow! One of very few intelligent views on the subject! China's information security and IT aren't as mature as more developed countries. The systems there can be hacked relatively simply. If you talk to the people there, you'd know how much they hate hacking and most of them have bad experiences with it. China has lots of college students with a lot of free time. It will definitely be a fertile ground for hacking.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs