Ramblings & ephemera

The Chinese Internet threat

From Shane Harris’ “China’s Cyber-Militia” (National Journal: 31 May 2008):

Computer hackers in China, including those working on behalf of the Chinese government and military, have penetrated deeply into the information systems of U.S. companies and government agencies, stolen proprietary information from American executives in advance of their business meetings in China, and, in a few cases, gained access to electric power plants in the United States, possibly triggering two recent and widespread blackouts in Florida and the Northeast, according to U.S. government officials and computer-security experts.

One prominent expert told National Journal he believes that China’s People’s Liberation Army played a role in the power outages. Tim Bennett, the former president of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, a leading trade group, said that U.S. intelligence officials have told him that the PLA in 2003 gained access to a network that controlled electric power systems serving the northeastern United States. The intelligence officials said that forensic analysis had confirmed the source, Bennett said. “They said that, with confidence, it had been traced back to the PLA.” These officials believe that the intrusion may have precipitated the largest blackout in North American history, which occurred in August of that year. A 9,300-square-mile area, touching Michigan, Ohio, New York, and parts of Canada, lost power; an estimated 50 million people were affected.

Bennett, whose former trade association includes some of the nation’s largest computer-security companies and who has testified before Congress on the vulnerability of information networks, also said that a blackout in February, which affected 3 million customers in South Florida, was precipitated by a cyber-hacker. That outage cut off electricity along Florida’s east coast, from Daytona Beach to Monroe County, and affected eight power-generating stations.

A second information-security expert independently corroborated Bennett’s account of the Florida blackout. According to this individual, who cited sources with direct knowledge of the investigation, a Chinese PLA hacker attempting to map Florida Power & Light’s computer infrastructure apparently made a mistake.

The industry source, who conducts security research for government and corporate clients, said that hackers in China have devoted considerable time and resources to mapping the technology infrastructure of other U.S. companies. That assertion has been backed up by the current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said last year that Chinese sources are probing U.S. government and commercial networks.

“The Chinese operate both through government agencies, as we do, but they also operate through sponsoring other organizations that are engaging in this kind of international hacking, whether or not under specific direction. It’s a kind of cyber-militia.… It’s coming in volumes that are just staggering.”

In addition to disruptive attacks on networks, officials are worried about the Chinese using long-established computer-hacking techniques to steal sensitive information from government agencies and U.S. corporations.

Brenner, the U.S. counterintelligence chief, said he knows of “a large American company” whose strategic information was obtained by its Chinese counterparts in advance of a business negotiation. As Brenner recounted the story, “The delegation gets to China and realizes, ‘These guys on the other side of the table know every bottom line on every significant negotiating point.’ They had to have got this by hacking into [the company’s] systems.”

During a trip to Beijing in December 2007, spyware programs designed to clandestinely remove information from personal computers and other electronic equipment were discovered on devices used by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and possibly other members of a U.S. trade delegation, according to a computer-security expert with firsthand knowledge of the spyware used. Gutierrez was in China with the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, a high-level delegation that includes the U.S. trade representative and that meets with Chinese officials to discuss such matters as intellectual-property rights, market access, and consumer product safety. According to the computer-security expert, the spyware programs were designed to open communications channels to an outside system, and to download the contents of the infected devices at regular intervals. The source said that the computer codes were identical to those found in the laptop computers and other devices of several senior executives of U.S. corporations who also had their electronics “slurped” while on business in China.

The Chinese make little distinction between hackers who work for the government and those who undertake cyber-adventures on its behalf. “There’s a huge pool of Chinese individuals, students, academics, unemployed, whatever it may be, who are, at minimum, not discouraged from trying this out,” said Rodger Baker, a senior China analyst for Stratfor, a private intelligence firm. So-called patriotic-hacker groups have launched attacks from inside China, usually aimed at people they think have offended the country or pose a threat to its strategic interests. At a minimum the Chinese government has done little to shut down these groups, which are typically composed of technologically skilled and highly nationalistic young men.

The military is not waiting for China, or any other nation or hacker group, to strike a lethal cyber-blow. In March, Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, the chief of U.S. Strategic Command, said that the Pentagon has its own cyberwar plans. “Our challenge is to define, shape, develop, deliver, and sustain a cyber-force second to none,” Chilton told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He asked appropriators for an “increased emphasis” on the Defense Department’s cyber-capabilities to help train personnel to “conduct network warfare.”

The Air Force is in the process of setting up a Cyberspace Command, headed by a two-star general and comprising about 160 individuals assigned to a handful of bases. As Wired noted in a recent profile, Cyberspace Command “is dedicated to the proposition that the next war will be fought in the electromagnetic spectrum and that computers are military weapons.” The Air Force has launched a TV ad campaign to drum up support for the new command, and to call attention to cyberwar. “You used to need an army to wage a war,” a narrator in the TV spot declares. “Now all you need is an Internet connection.”

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