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Alleged Chinese hacker attack stirs fears of digital cold war

President Bush may confront China over suspicions that its military hacked US defense computer systems.

By / September 6, 2007

Since news broke this week that Chinese hackers, allegedly part of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), had hacked into US, British, and German government computers to access defense and foreign-policy-related information, analysts have begun to speculate that the West may be moving into something of a new age cold war stand-off with China.

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The Financial Times was the first to report on Monday that supposed PLA hackers had broken into computers at the Pentagon in June, in addition to German and British government systems, and disrupted operations. The cyber-spies managed to access the computer system that served US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel also reported that Chinese hackers, presumably also from the PLA, had accessed computer systems within the German government.

The PLA regularly probes US military networks – and the Pentagon is widely assumed to scan Chinese networks – but US officials said the penetration in June raised concerns to a new level because of fears that China had shown it could disrupt systems at critical times.
"The PLA has demonstrated the ability to conduct attacks that disable our system...and the ability in a conflict situation to re-enter and disrupt on a very large scale," said a former official, who said the PLA had penetrated the networks of US defence companies and think-tanks.
Hackers from numerous locations in China spent several months probing the Pentagon system before overcoming its defences, according to people familiar with the matter.

An anonymous British intelligence source told The Times of London that high-tech espionage like hacking had replaced "old-fashioned" spying. He said that "China is engaged in hostile intelligence activities, and instead of using the old-fashioned methods [recruiting agents and stealing blueprints], they are focusing on electronic means to hack into systems to discover Britain's defense and foreign-policy secrets, and they are technologically pretty advanced and adept at it."

For its part, China has denied the cyberattacks, calling them "groundless" and a reflection of a "cold war mentality." One Chinese expert said that hackers could have used unsecured Chinese computers to disguise themselves and pin the blame on the Communist nation, reports the China Daily. Chinese officials contest that hacking is an international problem and that China is ready to "strengthen cooperation with other countries, including the US, in countering Internet crimes," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu.

"China is a responsible country and we never do this kind of despicable things," said Yang Yi, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies under the National Defense University.
"As a matter of fact, China has never had so called military hackers," he said, reacting to allegations against the Chinese army.

According to an annual report issued by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, titled "Military Power of the People's Republic of China 2007," the PLA has developed a systemized, albeit unofficial method of using cyberattacks as part of any major military operation.

The PLA is investing in electronic countermeasures, defenses against electronic attack (e.g., electronic and infrared decoys, angle reflectors, and false target generators), and computer network operations (CNO). China's CNO concepts include computer network attack, computer network defense, and computer network exploitation. The PLA sees CNO as critical to achieving "electromagnetic dominance" early in a conflict. Although there is no evidence of a formal Chinese CNO doctrine, PLA theorists have coined the term "Integrated Network Electronic Warfare" to prescribe the use of electronic warfare, CNO, and kinetic strikes to disrupt battlefield network information systems.
The PLA has established information warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks, and tactics and measures to protect friendly computer systems and networks. In 2005, the PLA began to incorporate offensive CNO into its exercises, primarily in first strikes against enemy networks.