Chinese cyberthreat increasing, experts say

Interagency Operations Security Support Staff

The Chinese government may not have the ability to cripple U.S. Defense Department computer networks yet, but more sophisticated cyberattacks emanating from that country are possible — even probable — in the near future, according to DOD and intelligence officials.

U.S. intelligence officials say there is evidence that the Chinese military is working to launch wide-scale cyberattacks on American and Taiwanese computer networks, according to a classified CIA report, as first reported by the Los Angeles Times last week.

The threat itself is not new, but the danger to U.S. systems is increasing, said a DOD official who spoke to Federal Computer Week on the condition of anonymity.

"It has been clear for some time that some countries, China included, have been focusing increasing attention on cyber-means to achieve national objectives," the official said, adding that the assessment of how far China has come is especially intriguing. "It must be realized that sophistication can improve rapidly."

John Wohlfarth, a research analyst at the Anser Institute for Homeland Security, said, "The vulnerability of the [United States] to a cyberattack is definitely present."

He said the U.S. government has been studying this issue since 1996, and although significant process has been made in "hardening some critical infrastructure targets within the [United States], the vast majority of America's critical structure is managed and protected by the private sector."

Given the fact that amateur assaults, such as the "love bug" virus, cost foreign and domestic companies billions of dollars, Wohlfarth said, a cyberattack backed by a foreign government could do tremendous damage.

Ray Semko, a member of the Interagency Operations Security Support Staff, which acts as a consultant to U.S. government agencies, predicted that China would be the greatest threat to the United States in coming years.

In a speech last week at the Army Information Technology Conference in Reno, Nev., Semko said the Chinese government "has a plan [and] is strategically positioning itself around the world" in preparation for future confrontations with the United States.

Semko said terrorists will use any means available to wage war, "and if you shut down all avenues to access except the Internet," then that's where they will attack.

The CIA report also predicted a possible wave of hacking attacks by Chinese students against the United States in coming weeks in part to coincide with the one-year anniversary this month of the collision between a U.S. EP-3 spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. The Chinese pilot died in the crash.

The incident set off a series of activities by U.S. and Chinese hackers, and the U.S. side dominated the action, said Lt. Gen. John Woodward, then Air Force director of communications and information, during a speech at last year's Montgomery, Ala., Air Force IT Conference.


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