Without cyber response policies, U.S. can only denounce China attacks

Cyberattacks from China highlight technology as growing arena for clash of national values and interests

When "The Official Google Blog" went public two weeks ago with news that a cyberattack originating in China had targeted its corporate servers and customers’ e-mail accounts, including those of several human rights activists, it served as the latest reminder of where U.S. and Chinese national interests will increasingly compete — politically, economically and militarily — now and into the future.

For the moment, there is little that the U.S. government can do in response to the situation, other than condemn the hacking and ask the Chinese government for an explanation.

As Computerworld reports: “The U.S. has no formal policy for dealing with foreign government-led threats against U.S. interests in cyberspace. With efforts already under way to develop such a policy, the recent attacks could do a lot to shape the policy and fuel its passage through Congress.”

One expert quoted in the report said the U.S. government’s commitment to protecting its own computers from such threats is woefully inadequate. Others said that any sort of cyber retaliation, even if computer forensics experts could confirm Chinese government responsibility, would be counterproductive, even though they expect state-sponsored attacks on U.S. commercial and government systems to continue and intensify.

The attacks, which used the Hydraq Trojan to open a back door into infected systems, affected Google and 33 other companies, including at least several prominent defense contractors, reported CIO magazine. Other companies reported to have been affected include Adobe Systems, Microsoft, Juniper Networks, Northrop Grumman, Symantec, Yahoo and Dow Chemical, reports Web site UnsafeBits.

Google, one of the brightest of stars in one of the most important segments of the U.S. economy, has reacted by threatening to pull out of China and its market of 350 million Internet users — the world’s largest — if the government there doesn’t allow the company to operate its localized Internet search service, Google.cn, without censorship.

As one of the prices for admission to the market four years ago, Google had bowed to government wishes and has been blocking Chinese citizens from seeing search results about certain topics, such as the 1989 crackdown at Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence or the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. With this latest hacking incident and a string of recent clashes with the Chinese government over other censorship issues, Google officials have apparently re-evaluated the compromise to their own avowed value of “Do no evil” and now find the cost too high.

The attack on Google and other companies bears the fingerprints of previous efforts to pry U.S. national security secrets, namely the use of six Web addresses in Taiwan to shuttle stolen information, reported the Financial Times.

According to the Times, “'Partners of ours in the defence [sic] industry said that those addresses have been used in attacks before," said Eli Jellenc of iDefense, a Virginia security firm hired by some of the recent targets. He said Taiwan was merely the last stop on the trail, not a suspect itself, and that the campaign was now seen to be after military information as well as high-tech know-how.

For their part, Chinese public officials said in a BBC report that the government abides by its own laws, which forbid computer hacking, presumably a denial of any involvement in the Google affair.

However, censorship is evidently well within Chinese law. “Online media must treat the creation of a positive mainstream opinion environment as an important duty,” read a statement, quoted in another Financial Times story, attributed to Wang Chen, head of China’s State Council Information Office and deputy head of the Communist party’s propaganda department.

Google, roundly criticized by activists for playing ball with the Chinese four years ago, is now applauded for taking its recent stand, even though its real reasons for doing so might still be driven by business concerns, according to BusinessWeek. Then again, all it takes is a glimpse of its smoggy skies, choked cities and ravaged landscapes to see that Communist China is also no stranger to sacrificing political ideals at the altar of commercial ambition.

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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