Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cyber-warfare threat posed by China

The West is becoming increasingly concerned over a cyber-warfare threat posed by China. In the Daily Telegraph this week one article suggested China would soon have the capability to "simply turns off the lights" in the West if it felt threatened or even in response to trade disputes. In a possible scenario the paper speculated that a diplomatic dispute between China and Britain might escalate into launch a hi-tech assault on Britain's computer systems, with devastating consequences. China could, it is suggested, shut-down the country's power stations, water companies, air traffic control, government and financial systems. Even launching nuclear-armed Trident missiles at China in response would have to be abandoned, as the computer systems that control the weapons system would also be inoperative after such a cyber attack.

On face value, such an attack may be far fetched, but there are increasing problems developing between the developing superpower and the West which are worrying certain defence departments in both Britain and America. Only two years ago British PM Gordon Brown made a highly successful visit to Beijing where the two countries agreed to increase trade by 50% by 2010, as well as cooperate on a range of issues, such as global warming. America too has developed strong ties to the Communist dictatorship.

Souring relationships 

But the ties are beginning to sour as China appears unwilling to play by the rules and take little part in helping solve problems on a global scale. Western policymakers have intensified efforts to persuade China to draw on its economic prosperity and play a constructive role in world affairs, such as persuading North Korea and Iran to give up their controversial nuclear weapons programmes. But there has been little progress on this front. In respect to Iran, China has not lifted a finger to help and only yesterday said that it was "too early" for sanctions. As a member of the UN Security Council, China takes only a minor active role and often abstains on major issues.

In Copenhagen last month, China was widely condemned for not cooperating and even scuppering a decisive agreement. In November US President Barack Obama arrived in China hoping to get Chinese cooperation on a range of issues, such as North Korea, financial stability and human rights. But despite being given a warm reception in public by Chinese officials, including a private guided tour of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, the president left Beijing without gaining any concessions from China on any major issue. 

Gordon Brown came up against an altogether different kind of China, one that appears to have no interest in behaving like a proper ally. Weeks of diplomatic representations failed to dissuade Beijing from intervening and commute the death sentence passed on Akmal Shaikh, a mentally ill 53-year-old minicab driver from North London who was convicted of smuggling four kilos of heroin into China two years ago.

This, like many issues raised with China, was met with the firm admonition not to interfere in China's internal affairs. Beijing's only real priority after all is to look after its own interests, whether it is enforcing its zero tolerance policy on drug abuse or refusing to cooperate with global efforts to reduce carbon emissions. On Tuesday this week, in an apparent effort to calm the waters Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said, "China attaches importance to its ties with Britain and it conforms with the two states' interests to maintain steady development of bilateral ties" [Xinhua].


But there was also a firm underlining that China would not be influenced by outsiders. "The Chinese judiciary's right to treat cases according to the rule of law should be respected and there's nobody who has the right to make improper comments on China's judicial sovereignty," Jiang said. In another pointed move, Fu Ying, the Chinese ambassador to Britain who was summoned twice to the Foreign Office for a dressing down over the Shaikh affair, was this week promoted to vice minister of Foreign Affairs Monday according to China's State Council. 

The belligerence displayed by China is forcing the West to reevaluate electronic security measures in case of a cyber attack. Beijing is said to be investing an enormous effort into developing technology that would render the West's superior military firepower useless. There have already been well-documented instances in recent years where Chinese hackers have successfully launched cyber attacks against key Western targets, including the Pentagon and Whitehall. In 2006 Chinese computer hackers were accused of shutting down the House of Commons computer network by flooding it with bogus emails, and the Foreign Office and other key government departments have accused rogue Chinese computer experts of trying to hack into their systems.

In the United States up to 100,000 attacks on government computers are attempted each year by Chinese hackers. Some have even successfully penetrated the computer systems of some of the American military's elite units, such as US Army's 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions. Western security experts believe Beijing has authorised PLA commanders to draw up a cyber warfare blueprint that would give them the capability to neutralise the West's military firepower by 2050.

The Pentagon recently reported that two highly accomplished Chinese computer hackers had been recruited by the PLA to draft a detailed plan that would enable China to disable the United States' entire aircraft carrier battle fleet, simply by launching a preemptive cyber attack. It is all seen as part of an aggressive push by Beijing to achieve "electronic dominance" over each of its global rivals by 2050, with the US, Britain, South Korea and Russia the main targets. 

"The Chinese realise that, if it came to a conventional military conflict with the West, they would struggle to compete with the West's superior military firepower," said a Western security source. "But by concentrating their efforts on cyber wars they believe they can develop a cheap and highly effective method of achieving technical supremacy over the West."

British concern

The British government is now so concerned about the threat posed by China's cyber warriors that it has established a Cyber Security Operations Centre at the GCHQ listening centre in Cheltenham. Lord West, Gordon Brown's security adviser, said that Britain was developing the capability to strike back against Chinese hackers by recruiting former British hackers to GCHQ. "You need youngsters who are deep into this stuff," Lord West explained last year. "If they have been slightly naughty boys, very often they enjoy stopping other naughty boys," he said, warning that any future war between world powers was more likely to be fought over the Internet than on the battlefield. "As their ability to use the web and the net grows, there will be more opportunity for these attacks," he said.

US report

The USCC, the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, recently published a document in which it reported on China's development of electronic military capabilities. Entitled "Capability of the People's Republic of China to Conduct Cyber Warfare and Computer Network Exploitation", the 88 page report is the most detailed and comprehensive analysis of China's high-tech capabilities so-far made public [PDF].

"The government of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is a decade into a sweeping military modernization program that has fundamentally transformed its ability to fight high tech wars. The Chinese military, using increasingly networked forces capable of communicating across service arms and among all echelons of command, is pushing beyond its traditional missions focused on Taiwan and toward a more regional defense posture," the report states in its opening summary. 

The remit of the USCC is to monitor, investigate, and submit to congress an annual report on the national security implications of the bilateral trade and economic relationship between the United States and the People's Republic of China, and to provide recommendations, where appropriate, to Congress for legislative and administrative action. This latest submission will make sober reading for the Obama administration which was hoping to forge better ties with China.

The threat stretches beyond defence according to the report. "China is likely using its maturing computer network exploitation capability to support intelligence collection against the US Government and industry by conducting a long term, sophisticated, computer network exploitation campaign," it states.


Many attacks are perpetrated by proxy, in other words allowing the hacking community to work on behalf of the government. "Analysis of these intrusions is yielding increasing evidence that the intruders are turning to Chinese "black hat" programmers (i.e. individuals who support illegal hacking activities) for customized tools that exploit vulnerabilities in software that vendors have not yet discovered," the report says. "China's hackers, active in thousands of Web-based groups and individually, represent a mature community of practitioners that has developed a rich knowledge base similar to their counterparts in countries around the world. A review of these Web communities reveals many layers of interest groups: malware tool developers, legitimate security researchers, and novices and experts alike in search of training. The tools or techniques that these groups post are often used by true black hat practitioners."

The information targeted to date could potentially benefit a nation-state defense industry, space program, selected civilian high technology industries, foreign policymakers interested in US leadership thinking on key China issues, and foreign military planners building an intelligence picture of US defense networks, logistics, and related military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis. 

Developing threat

And some of the information is already being exploited the findings suggest. "The PLA [People's Liberation Army] maintains a strong R&D focus on counter-space weapons and though many of the capabilities currently under development exceed purely cyber or EW [Electronic Warfare] options, they are nonetheless, still considered "information warfare" weapons. Among the most high profile of China's ASAT capabilities are kinetic weapons, which rely on projectiles or warheads fired at high speed to impact a satellite directly."

Such capabilities have already been demonstrated. In January 2007 tested a space weapon and destroyed a defunct Chinese weather. And the report warns that directed energy weapons, such as lasers, high power microwave systems and nuclear generated electromagnetic pulse attacks (EMP), are under development. Use of such weapons, even if only a test, could quickly become a serious situation. "Detonating a nuclear device to create an EMP effect runs an especially high risk of crossing US 'red lines' for the definition of a nuclear attack, even if the attack is carried out in the upper reaches of the atmosphere," the USCC says. China has already stepped over a thin line when in 2006 it was accused by the US of using a laser dazzling weapon that temporarily blinded a reconnaissance satellite. 

The USCC suggests there are also plans to use EW and other forms of cyber attacks in a preemptive fashion. One such scenario would be in a possible invasion of Taiwan, long seen by China as part of its own territory. The purpose would be, "Delaying or degrading US combat operations in this Taiwan scenario sufficiently to allow the PLA to achieve lodgment on Taiwan or force the capitulation of the political leadership on the island would present the US with a fait accompli upon arrival in the combat operations area."

The report suggests that in order to counter potential attacks, America should take a proactive stance in upgrading security on its electronic systems. The majority of US military logistics information systems is transmitted or accessed via the NIPRNET to facilitate communication or coordination between the hundreds of civilian and military nodes in the military's global supply chain. But parts of the system are essentially insecure as they are connected to the Internet. SIPRNET, is more secure but does not maintain the same functionality.

In a military crisis the USCC says the NIPRNET would sustain persistent attacks to nodes affecting logistics. command and control functions. This would make the country and those under the umbrella of NATO particularly vulnerable, the report suggests. The report did not offer recommendations, but the data and information make uncomfortable reading that will no doubt be enacted upon by Washington. Britain, Europe and others under NATO should also take heed.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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