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Chinese Cyber Warfare: Has the US Found a Smoking Gun?

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Like most such issues, it all depends upon whom you ask.

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL According to a leaked draft of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission's annual report to Congress, obtained by Bloomberg News a week before its scheduled release, Chinese hackers are employing "increasingly advanced types of operations or operations against specialized targets."

A US intelligence official interviewed by Bloomberg describes the Chinese as having been "relentless" in its efforts to "blind or disrupt" those targets, which include "deployed US military platforms," as well as "US intelligence and communications satellites, weapons targeting systems, and navigation computers." (Indeed, a report [PDF] prepared for the Commission last March by Northrop Grumman (NYSE:NOC) determined that China could severely hamper the US military's ability to protect Taiwan in the event of a strike.)

"Irrespective of the sophistication, the volume of exploitation attempts yielded enough successful breaches to make China the most threatening actor in cyberspace," the draft states, describing China's "cyber warfare militia… usually comprised of workers with high-tech day jobs" which "focus on military communications, electronic warfare and computer network operations."

According to data provided to the Commission by CloudFlare Inc., a San Francisco-based security outfit, cyber attacks make up approximately 15% of all daily total global Internet traffic. Then, oddly, on October 1 of last year, that figure "plummeted to about 6.5%."

Or, perhaps not so oddly -- October 1 happens to be China's National Day, when, the report says, "many workers take leave."

A Smoking Gun?

Like most such issues, it all depends upon whom you ask.

"I think it's an ancillary indicator that supports the hypothesis that these hacking incidents is both a 'job' and possibly mission driven by government surrogates," Jarrett Kolthoff, a former US counterintelligence agent and current president and CEO of cyber counterintelligence firm SpearTip, tells me.

"The threats directed at US firms by the Chinese are very systematic and often mimic a traditional workday," Kolthoff continues. "We are also seeing an increase in using both Human Intelligence (HUMINT) and cyber methods of attack."

Kolthoff says these cyber attacks against "western" assets not only come via China, but also from Russia and Iran. And they're not limited to military targets. Says Kolthoff, we are witnessing "substantive examples of the clear and present danger to US firms."

"The technical aptitude of these groups is ever-increasing and they are noticeably embracing/utilizing cyber weaponry to accomplish their goals," he says.

However, Collin Anderson, an independent Internet researcher and free speech advocate, warns against a rush to convict -- particularly before studying the Commission's full findings.

"I think [the data] is interesting and may be more of a reflection on Chinese culture than anything else, but without the full metrics it's really hard to be satisfied with something like that," he tells me. "If anything, I'm always a bit skeptical of the whole 'cyber warfare' notion; there are a lot of groups that have sort of a vested interest in the fear that surrounds so-called cyber warfare and you don't often see metrics from people who aren't making money off of it."
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