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Chinese Computer Espionage: An Act of War against America?

Newspaper headlines tell us of a recent new example of computer hacking and suspected computer espionage, allegedly by the Chinese government, that some suggest is tantamount to “an act of war.” While surely a threat to this country, we still need to be careful in our application of such a phrase. Pearl Harbor was an […]

Newspaper headlines tell us of a recent new example of computer hacking and suspected computer espionage, allegedly by the Chinese government, that some suggest is tantamount to “an act of war.” While surely a threat to this country, we still need to be careful in our application of such a phrase. Pearl Harbor was an act of war; the 1962 Soviet placement of ballistic missiles in Cuba with the ability to hit the U.S. mainland was a potential act of war, what some consider to be the closest the world has come to full blown nuclear war. Computer hacking and computer-based espionage has been with us for years. In 1878 a few young men were suspected of trying to “hack” into America’s new telephone system, this followed over the next 133 years by many thousands of similar, but obviously more sophisticated acts of vandalism to full blown, nation-directed attacks against computer systems across the world.

Recent Examples of Computer Hacking

In 1995, the GAO reported that computer hackers had attempted to crack into DOD files more than a quarter of a million times in that year alone, 65% of which were successful. In 1998 a group of hackers allegedly broke into a DOD network and stole software that would allow them to control a military satellite system, software the hackers threatened to sell to terrorists. In that same year China sentenced two hackers to death for breaking into a bank computer network and stealing $31,000.

By the year 2000, one new computer virus entered the world wide net every hour and the “I love you” virus caused $10 billion of damage. One year later (2001), Chinese hackers allegedly got into computer files of the CIA, HHS, and the White House. Among the thousands of files recently released by WikiLeaks, was one describing how China’s Politburo had allegedly authorized the hacking of many U.S. companies, noting that approximately 85% of U.S. companies have been hacked, obviously not all by the Chinese. Another report suggested that through computer hacking China has attempted to map the U.S. power grid and how it supports the infrastructure of America, and, obviously, how it could be shut down. Some conspiracy theorists have even suggested that some of the massive black outs experienced in America in the last decade were actually intentional acts by some international government, a sort of test of how to totally shut the U.S.A. down by pulling our national electric plug.

Cyber Security

Threats to our national computer systems are, as indicated, broad in nature and can be anything from an act of terrorism to economic espionage. Nation- state hackers are obviously already here. The FBI has indicated that like minor to major computer virus’, computer hackers already “sit within our networks,” many times unknown and undetected, in the computers of both government and corporate networks, this to seek, steal or destroy technology, trade secrets, intelligence, intellectual property and even military weapons and strategies. This is not done exclusively by governments that are somehow “less than friendly” to the United States. For example, it is widely believed that Israeli computer hackers authored the “Stuxnet” computer virus, one that the Israeli’s were able to introduce into Iraq’s nuclear program that caused a large number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium to spin wildly out of control, basically shutting down Iraq’s nuclear program for a significant amount of time. Part two of this “attack” recorded what normal operations of the centrifuges would look like and played these back to the plant operators who, like an unknowing “Homer Simpson,” believed all was well until the damage was done. While not as easy, this was apparently a method equally effective to the 2007 Israeli bombing of a Syria nuclear facility to shut down that countries program, both of which obviously posed a potential threat to the security of the nation of Israel.

US DOD officials have reported for years that a significant amount of China’s national budget has gone for cyber warfare, with literally thousands of authorized and uniformed hackers and computers dedicated to breaking into computer systems around the world, obviously to include the USA. They have been able to obtain enough information to copy both U.S. cruise missiles as well as our current vintage of unmanned aerial vehicles, something that has saved that government billions of dollars in development, as had to be spent by America, which allowed China to both copy and thereafter offer for sale their own military vehicles based on advanced U.S. technology.

Now once again it is the Chinese who are believed to have attacked or hacked into a U.S. computer system, in this case the private Gmail accounts of U.S. government military personnel, civilian government officials, and, as has been the case in the past, those with political views that differ from mainline China. Google has allegedly been able to trace the origin of the new attacks to Jinan, China, home of a specialized Chinese military vocational school that teaches it’s students how to hack into computer systems around the world. China, as usual, has denied such charges.

Most believe that China conducts such “computerized raids” for two purposes: to obtain information and disrupt services and to see if their intrusions can be detected. When Google raised the alarm, it simply told the Chinese that they needed to go through a different computer window, like a house burglar would do if he felt the potential to be detected by going through a door with an alarm. To expect that the Chinese would acknowledge that it had been caught “red handed,” so to speak, is not reality. They will simply deny, make counter allegations, and move on with their computer based espionage activities.

What can the U.S. do?

While not up to the standard of the Cuban missile crisis, such attacks by China are still threats of a different color to our nation. This recent attack is being investigated by the FBI, but if we are able to prove, as Google already believes it has proven, that this attack originated from within China, so what? Are we going to place sanctions on China, for example, to stop their yearly introduction of some $365 billion dollars of goods into the U.S., noting that they “legally import” only $93 billion dollars in return. China is now the world’s second-largest economy and they aren’t about to slow that economy down by, for example, “playing by the rules.” The U.S. national debt is around 10 trillion dollars of which China is owed about 10% or at least one trillion dollars. If we attempt somehow to charge the Chinese government with some type of nation-authorized computer assault on America, they can simply foreclose on our debt to them, and few agencies in our government can afford to write a one trillion dollar check to China.

We are, therefore, left to develop yet new ways to prevent such attacks and to do we, so need to invest as much if not much more into the training of our own legions of hackers to match the Chinese hackers. Point – Counter Point: and the future of America may hang on our ability to respond appropriately.

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