A rush to judge China on cyberwarfare

Updated: 2013-03-13 11:24

By George Koo and Ling-chi Wang (China Daily)

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Despite a claim by Bloomberg Businessweek that the Chinese army is spying on Americans, the report that led to the charges has serious flaws. These raise troubling questions about a repetition of the "China spy syndrome".

Beginning with an allegation by The New York Times on Jan 30 of Chinese hacking, many publications have since run one or more stories on cyberattacks emanating from China.

The publication of a report by the Internet security firm Mandiant on Feb 18 set the stage for an announcement by the White House two days later that the US was determined to protect its businesses and punish the perpetrators at home and abroad.

Is this all orchestrated to pave the way for a new policy initiative? Or is this just a reinforcement of Obama's "pivot to Asia" and "Trans-Pacific Partnership," two major initiatives aimed clearly in response to the so-called rise of China?

Since the nascent art of hacking and counter measures of cybersecurity are subjects too esoteric and beyond the comprehension of most people, the media has focused instead on the more lurid details in the Mandiant report.

That alleged that most of the cyberattacks against corporate America came from a 12-story building in the Pudong neighborhood of Shanghai that belonged to a particular department of the People's Liberation Army, the sinister-sounding Unit 61398.

Since Mandiant is in the business of selling its services to safeguard company networks from cyberattacks, it presumably has an interest in portraying the attackers in the darkest terms possible. Using the PLA does that job well.

However, shortly after the Mandiant broke the news, articles that presented contrary views began to appear. The most comprehensive was that of Jeffrey Carr, a cybersecurity expert, who pointed out that more than 30 countries are able to run "military-grade network operations" necessary to mount the kind of sophisticated attacks cited in the report. According to the US National Intelligence Estimate, Russia, Israel, and France are among the leaders when it comes to computer hacking.

Carr concluded that Mandiant was too quick to identify China as the culprit without performing rigorous analysis to eliminate other hypotheses or comparing its cyberespionage activities with those of other countries.

Two days after The New York Times article appeared, the US edition of The World Journal, a Chinese-language daily, reported that seven of the IP addresses identified in the Mandiant report as coming from the PLA office in Shanghai were in fact in Hong Kong, including a Hong Kong University of Science and Technology address.

This should not come as a surprise, since hacking can emanate from anywhere and can easily be misdirected to appear as if it is coming from elsewhere. What was surprising was that this finding came from a little noted ethnic paper and not from the major media.

Perhaps former US vice-president Al Gore did not invent the Internet, but it is an inconvenient truth that the US defense agency did, and Americans have since led in the development and use of the Internet. As the world's most advanced economy, the US has invested heavily and become most dependent on networks in cyberspace and thus most vulnerable to attacks.

It has also led in developing and using weapons in cyberwarfare. For example, the US-developed Stuxnet virus has been credited with causing the centrifuges to spin out of control in the Iranian nuclear enhancement facility. Being the first known country to launch a cyberattack in peacetime and in the absence of any international treaty and protocol, the US has lost the moral high ground and is in no position to define appropriate conduct in cyberspace.

Of course, this is not the first time that Washington is reaping the consequences of what it has sown. It is the only country to have used the atomic bomb, and has since had to devote decades of diplomatic efforts to promote nuclear non-proliferation and now lives in fear of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of what it calls rogue nations and terrorists.

The next Pandora's box, one the United States opened and will soon be trying to shut, is the use of drones for transnational surveillance and killing terrorist suspects. In all of that, of course, there is no due process. US friends and foes alike have experienced just how cost effective a drone is in killing people and destroying property and are now all too keen to join the drone club.

The day is nigh when Americans will be troubled by the prospect of encountering drones operated remotely and in the hands of someone holding a grudge against the US. We will then, again, have to expend endless diplomatic efforts in spreading the message "Do as I say and not as I do."

As for China, it has in its way been trying to tell the US that it does not hold a grudge. In typically understated signals, Beijing has let Washington know that it possesses silent-running submarines, stealth aircraft and missiles capable of downing communications satellites. China even went out of its way to make sure that US intelligence got a full picture of its nuclear weapons technology, as suggested by the nuclear scientist Daniel Stillman of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The latest airshows in China are displaying a large array of domestically made drones.

Indeed, China appears to be practicing a porcupine defense strategy, i.e. having peaceful intentions but making it clear that it has the ability to retaliate in kind. In fact, some have suggested that the alleged PLA hacking has been deliberately sloppy, thus leaving trails to let the US know that China too possesses the wherewithal for cyberwarfare.

Cyberespionage and cyberwarfare are serious problems that are here to stay. Washington needs to develop effective, long-term countermeasures and a thoughtful and balanced diplomacy. Singling out China as the sole villain without critically examining what other countries are doing, is counterproductive, potentially misleading and, in the long run, harmful to national interests and world peace.

George Koo is international business consultant and board member of New America Media, and Ling-chi Wang is a retired professor of Asian American history at the University of California, Berkeley.

(China Daily 03/13/2013 page11)