Is China winning the cyber war?

Leaked documents suggest China might have the upper hand

The Cold War took its name from the relative lack of shooting that characterized it. The United States and Soviet Union fought one another politically, diplomatically and economically but rarely with guns or tanks. It was not a hot war.

We have a couple of hot wars going on now, but there's another cold war under way, too — one being fought between the United States and China, primarily using IT.

And it looks as though China has the upper hand at the moment.

"According to U.S. investigators, China has stolen terabytes of sensitive data, from user names and passwords for State Department computers to designs for multibillion-dollar weapons systems," write Brian Grow and Mark Hosenball in a report for Reuters. "And Chinese hackers show no signs of letting up."

Grow and Hosenball credit WikiLeaks for revealing many previously secret details about China's ongoing cyber assault, which the U.S. government has code named Byzantine Hades. Specifically, they write, the State Department cables that WikiLeaks published show that the Chinese military was the source of those attacks, not some rogue hacker group.

Responding to the Reuters report, Adam Martin, blogging for The Atlantic, said: "In short, the Chinese are way better at cyber spying than pretty much anybody else."

However, he dismisses the idea that cyber spying is a serious threat to U.S. national security. "The Chinese are unlikely to invade any time soon, even if they find out when the secretary of Defense takes his lunch break," Martin writes. "Rather, the attacks are one of many tactics China is employing to keep its economy growing." Chinese cyberattacks have also targeted private businesses, and news reports detailing individual intrusions are plentiful, he said.

Collin Spears, a blogger for the Foreign Policy Association, read the situation the same way.

"The infamous 'Google E-mail Hacks' of 2010 are a case [in] point," Spears writes. "Google openly implicated China in an e-mail hacking scandal, but this situation is actually not uncommon. It is just that Google went public and garnered significant media attention due to its status."

Spears notes that more than 34 other companies, including technology and defense firms, are believed to have been cyber targets.

But William Jasper, writing in the New American, takes a dimmer view of China's motives. Although some experts think China might not be the perpetrator but instead the victim of outside forces hacking its poorly defended systems and using them to stage attacks, those arguments are unsupported, Jasper writes.

People who feared Soviet infiltration of the United States during the Cold War have been proven correct in at least some instances, Jasper writes. "The arrests in the past months of Russian and Chinese spies in the United States provide ample evidence that the communist propensity for espionage and deception has not abated among the supposedly 'reformed' leadership of the Beijing regime."

Jasper and others also point out that the cyberattacks haven't been trivial test runs. Chinese hackers penetrated Defense Department computers and gained access to material on the Joint Strike Fighter program. Chinese hackers have also apparently penetrated the United States' energy grid and left behind software that could be used to disable the grid remotely, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The concerns are not new. In September 2007, the Times of London published an article headlined, "China’s cyber army is preparing to march on America, says Pentagon." Reporter Tim Reid said U.S. military officials believed that the Chinese military had a detailed plan "to disable America’s aircraft battle carrier fleet with a devastating cyberattack."

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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