A new front is opening up between China and the US in their struggle for global supremacy. Cyber attacks from China seem to be increasing, as exemplified by Google’s recent accusations that it has uncovered a campaign run from inside China to secretly monitor the Gmail accounts of top-ranking US government officials and military personnel, South Korean officers and other users. The hackers allegedly used a phishing campaign to trick users into revealing their passwords. Though the Chinese government has denied the accusations as “a fabrication out of thin air”, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has described Google’s claims as “very serious”.
Google claimed that the attacks appeared to originate from Jinan — it is home to a military vocational school, the computers of which were linked to a more sophisticated assault on Google’s systems a few months ago. This is the most serious claim of China-based Internet intrusion since a previous incident involving the company last year when it decided to redirect users in mainland China to its search engine based in Hong Kong. The decision put the Internet search giant, which has a huge financial stake in China, on a collision course with Beijing. Google and the Chinese government have clashed repeatedly over the past year. China blocked one of Google’s sites, YouTube, in March last year in an apparent attempt to stop people in China from viewing videos of anti-government protests by Tibetans and Uighurs. The security of commercial networks became a major issue as Google accused China of stealing intellectual property online and compromising the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
The latest dispute is happening at a time of heightened sensitivity about cyber disputes and even warfare. Sony suffered an attack from hackers; Lockheed Martin faced cyber attacks that are now being investigated by the FBI; and last month Sony Corporation had to briefly close down its PlayStation network after an intrusion by yet-to-be-identified hackers that put at risk the credit card information of about 70 million users.
Meanwhile, facing criticism from the US, China decided to go on an offensive. In an attempt to divert attention from allegations of online attacks on Western targets originating in China, the Chinese military accused Washington of launching a global “Internet war” to bring down Arab and other governments. In line with this, the Chinese military planners have asked their government to make preparations to fight this “Internet war” which is a product of the new information age. In an article, Chinese military scholars have suggested that China needs to “express to the world its principled stance of maintaining an ‘Internet border’ and protecting its ‘Internet sovereignty’, unite all advanced forces to dive into the raging torrent of the age of peaceful use of the Internet, and return to the Internet world a healthy, orderly environment.”
Facing an onslaught of cyber attacks, the US department of defence has made it clear that cyber attacks by any foreign nation may be considered an “act of war”. And the UK’s latest national security strategy lists cyber attacks as one of the most significant security threats facing the nation. In view of these developments, some are advocating the negotiation of an international “non-proliferation” treaty to counter a new cyber arms race between nations.
China is investing in new technologies for cyber and space warfare, primarily to counter America’s traditional advantages. Beijing has made its intention clear of focusing on the development of asymmetric capabilities that include electronic warfare, shaping the battle space with information dominance and using new technology not available to great powers that modernised earlier. China has been probing the computer networks of its adversaries for some time now, investing heavily in electronic counter measures and envisaging concepts like computer network attack, computer network defence and computer network exploitation. Its industrial and defence espionage is aimed at obtaining advanced technology for economic and military modernisation. China has been giving cyber warfare serious thought and has incorporated it into its military planning and strategy by encouraging civilian computer crackers to penetrate the computer networks of key political and military leaders in countries ranging from the US, Japan and Taiwan, to South Korea and India.
The issue of how governments should respond to or help prevent cyber attacks against private enterprises as well as state assets is one of the most difficult security issues facing policy-makers today. India is no stranger to cyber warfare. China’s penetration into the Indian intelligence apparatus has been growing. The National Informatics Centre, which governs and hosts all government websites, as well as computers of the Prime Minister’s Office, several Indian embassies, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and the Dalai Lama’s office were infected by GhostNet, a China-based cyber espionage network. Though this came to light in early 2009, it had been going on for the past several years. The Indian military lacks the expertise and resources to defend the country adequately from concerted cyber attacks even as cyber criminals, terrorists and other nations are getting better at penetrating state and private networks, whether to spy, to steal data or damage critical infrastructure. It is time.