Monday, 25 February 2013

The murky world of cross-Pacific cyber espionage


It is becoming more obvious that the culpability of intrusive and thorough cyber-attacks on Western enterprises and governments lies with China.

In the secretive world of espionage Beijing is unlikely to be caught on the metaphorical security camera stealing state or business secrets like the spies of old. After all, they are probably quite capable of wiping the footage right off the cameras so no one would ever know.

Cyber espionage involves the illicit extraction of information from computers. Given the incredible Chinese economic advance over the last twenty years, and the amount of time it takes to conduct indigenous research and development projects, China’s rise to eminence may be due in a large part to their formidable army of internet spies and hackers.

This 12-storey building is alleged in a recent Mandiant report as the 
home of a Chinese military-led hacking group after the Internet security 
firm reportedly traced a host of cyber attacks to the building in 
Shanghai's northern suburb of Gaoqiao. -- PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
On the one side, China’s conventional army of two million soldiers is probably more of a political, internal machine than an aggressive invasion force. Likewise, China’s navy and air force focus mainly on peripheral and disputed territories close to the Chinese mainland.

Some warn these military branches could soon spark serious conflict in Asia. But no one seriously believes Chinese fighter jets, missile cruisers, and artillery pose any kind of threat to world peace. Instead, China’s geographic reality predicts a mostly inward-looking military protecting the mainland.

Belligerent ships may capture the headlines of world media in the Asia-Pacific, but the real battle is raging under the sea, along thousands of miles of fibre-optic cabling connecting radically different countries throughout the world.

It is Beijing’s new military cyber wing that spreads its tentacles far beyond the motherland. This digital division is rumoured to be housed in a nondescript, white high-rise on the outskirts of Shanghai. By the looks of the building aesthetics probably don’t mean much to the “soldiers” tapping away on computers inside; their world is digital.

The army of Chinese hackers conduct daily “battle”. Breaking into and stealing digital prizes are the immediate goal for these government cyber-spies. And neither the supposedly robust U.S. State Department nor the blueprint-heavy defence contractors of Northrop Grumman, Boeing, or Raytheon are immune to concerted attacks from computerised surveillance.

But while the potential threat of cyber-espionage is very high, the spectre of full-blown cyber-warfare remains the filling of average fiction novels. Although much of an advanced culture’s infrastructure is probably accessible over an internet connection, acting aggressively to shut off electrical power to Washington or Wellington or overheat a nuclear power plant would be strategically unwise.

A 2011 document released by the Obama administration declared "…the right to use all necessary means – diplomatic, informational, military, and economic – as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our nation, our allies, our partners and our interests". The United States issued the stern, and frightening, warning to any country with designs on attacking America with cyber-weapons.

Recent attacks on the United States government have been suspected from China, but the American Presidential administration is so far careful not to overtly blame the Chinese government. With such enormous conventional military strength between the two Pacific powers, pushing the limits of the cyber world too far may unintentionally spill over into the world of the real.

But of course, China is not the only country with a dedicated cyber military division. The United States has created a similar force that is very hush-hush. The other “cyber powers” of the Asia-Pacific are Russia, Taiwan, North and South Korea, and Australia. All of which share the need to access the economically-critical gateway of the internet.

New Zealand’s own GCSB, of Kim Dotcom infamy, is dedicated to fighting cyber-crime and cyber espionage. Our relationship with and intelligence sharing between the United Kingdom and the United States gives both Australia and New Zealand some advantage over other Asia-Pacific countries.

What exactly goes on behind the curtain is obscure, but the United States and China are competing in a new “Cold War” of ones and zeros rather than conventional weaponry.

Chinese citizens such as businessmen, researchers, and students are encouraged to collect information during overseas travel. Without doing anything illegal, these gatherers can contribute to a huge collection of intelligence. Perhaps a deep sense of nationalism helps China’s citizens decide to pass on their information to waiting Chinese intelligence agencies or business enterprises.

After all, gaining business advantage is simple capitalism. But China takes it one step further. Their modernising military and entire government-run agencies are increasing efforts to break into all the secrets they can find in overseas computers. The United States is a major target for Chinese cyber-spies but America is by no means the only country under threat.

The internet is still the Wild West. Money can be made hand-over-fist using even marginally good ideas, just so long as they’re better than the last person’s idea. But it is also a place where it is possible to become entirely anonymous. Tracing any digital movement by computer experts can be extremely difficult.

However, even though China is suspected to conduct most penetrating cyber- attacks on Western targets, actually compiling evidence proving this is probably easier said than done. Pointing the finger is diplomatically unwise without firm proof.

In reality, the world of espionage is already murky, but cyber espionage is a morass. And the hacking game is entirely reciprocal, with American and Chinese hackers fighting a pseudo-Cold War behind the curtain to hopefully gain temporary strategic and economic advantages in a cascading effort.

Espionage can be damaging, but countries do not quickly draw swords over it. Nations supporting cyber espionage appear to be careful to stay below the threshold of what could be considered the use of force or an act of war. But the internet is still an amorphous entity and the future could well bring this digital Cold War into the unforgiving material world with even a slight stumbling misstep.

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