Feature

China’s increasingly aggressive cyberwar

The U.S. government rushed to bolster the nation’s cyber defenses after suspected Chinese hackers attacked major American media organizations.

What happened The U.S. government rushed to bolster the nation’s cyber defenses this week after suspected Chinese hackers launched a string of audacious attacks on major American media organizations, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. In a front-page story, the Times revealed that its computer system had been persistently attacked for four months after it ran an exposé of the billion-dollar fortune amassed by relatives of China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. The perpetrators stole the passwords of Times employees and broke into the email accounts of bureau chiefs in Asia. Experts traced the attacks back to computers at a Chinese university. Following the story’s publication, the Journal, Bloomberg News, and The Washington Post revealed that they had also been targeted by Chinese hackers after reporting on the regime. And just last week, the federal Department of Energy—which maintains the U.S. nuclear arsenal—also had its computers hacked, with the evidence pointing to China.

The new wave of cyberattacks comes amid growing concern that China is mounting a widespread campaign to infiltrate computer systems throughout the U.S., in order to steal classified information, conduct industrial espionage, and identify internal critics who speak to Western media. Officials in Beijing denied any involvement in the hacks, calling the claims “unprofessional and baseless.” But in response to the growing threat of state-sponsored cyberwar, the Pentagon announced it was hiring 4,000 extra code crackers, online security experts, and hackers to boost its Cyber Command division, which currently employs 900 people. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned that foreign hackers could derail the computer systems that undergird the nation’s transportation, utility, and financial networks, causing a “cyber–Pearl Harbor.” 

What the editorials said China badly miscalculated this cyber offensive, said The Wall Street Journal. By going after Western media organizations that exposed official corruption and repression, the regime has revealed just how terrified it is of its own citizens being exposed to the truth. “Whatever they think they’ve learned about us by sneaking around our inboxes, the world has learned a great deal more about them.”

Cyberwar “is no longer a science-fiction fantasy,” said The Washington Post.Every day, state-sponsored hackers from China, Russia, Iran, and other hostile nations attack our banks, government offices, and corporations—including Google, Lockheed Martin, and Nortel—seeking to steal secrets and test our defenses. If the Pentagon’s new cyberwarriors “manage to stop enemies from turning out the lights of a major city or crashing the stock market, they will prove their worth.” 

What the columnists said Welcome to the new Cold War, said Michael Schrage in HarvardBusinessReview.org. Any company that has business dealings with China, competes with Chinese industries, or criticizes China’s authoritarian government should now consider itself a front-line target. The sheer scale of the threat means that companies—whether digital start-ups or blue-chip behemoths—will have to partner with the government to develop a new “military post-industrial complex” to defend against these increasingly sophisticated attacks.

Up to now, the Obama administration has been focused on playing offense in the cyberwar, said Thomas Rid in The New Republic.The Stuxnet virus that the U.S. and Israel launched against Iran’s nuclear-enrichment facilities was a prime example. But “little has been done to address the country’s major vulnerabilities,” including the electricity grid. We’re currently at a disadvantage, said John Arquilla in ForeignPolicy.com, because hackers are “courted and pampered” by the governments of China, Russia, and other countries. In the U.S., they are treated like terrorists. Last month, Aaron Swartz, a talented 26-year-old hacker, killed himself rather than face a possible 35-year jail sentence for illegally accessing scholarly journals. The government should have hired Swartz, instead of persecuting him.

Want to fight back against China? said Adam Segal, also in ForeignPolicy.com. Our hackers should mount a systematic effort to “circumvent the Great Firewall of China,” and make Western reporting on the regime’s corruption and brutality available to Chinese Web users. The free flow of information is what China’s government fears most—which is why it’s our most potent weapon. 

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