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China emerges as leader in cyberwarfare

In recent weeks, China has been accused of hacking the Pentagon as well as British and German government offices.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / September 14, 2007



Paris; and Oakland, Calif.

When suspected Chinese hackers penetrated the Pentagon this summer, reports downplayed the cyberattack. The hackers hit a secure Pentagon system known as NIPRNet – but it only carries unclassified information and general e-mail, Department of Defense officials said.

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Yet a central aim of the Chinese hackers may not have been top secrets, but a probe of the Pentagon network structure itself, some analysts argue. The NIPRNet (Non-classified Internet Protocol Router Network) is crucial in the quick deployment of US forces should China attack Taiwan. By crippling a Pentagon Net used to call US forces, China gains crucial hours and minutes in a lightning attack designed to force a Taiwan surrender, experts say.

China's presumed infiltration underscores an ever bolder and more advanced capability by its cybershock troops. Today, of an estimated 120 countries working on cyberwarfare, China, seeking great power status, has emerged as a leader.

"The Chinese are the first to use cyberattacks for political and military goals," says James Mulvenon, an expert on Chin's military and director of the Center for Intelligence and Research in Washington. "Whether it is battlefield preparation or hacking networks connected to the German chancellor, they are the first state actor to jump feet first into 21st-century cyberwarfare technology. This is clearly becoming a more serious and open problem."

China is hardly the only state conducting cyberespionage. "Everybody is hacking everybody," says Johannes Ullrich, an expert with the SANS Technology Institute, pointing to Israeli hacks against the US, and French hacks against European Union partners. But aspects of the Chinese approach worry him. "The part I am most afraid of is … staging probes inside key industries. It's almost like sleeper cells, having ways to [disrupt] systems when you need to if it ever came to war."

In recent weeks, China stands accused not only of the Pentagon attack, but also of daily striking German federal ministries and British government offices, including Parliament. After an investigation in May, officials at Germany's Office of the Protection of the Constitution told Der Speigel that 60 percent of all cyberattacks on German systems come from China. Most originate in the cities of Lanzhou and Beijing, and in Guangdong Province, centers of high-tech military operations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly raised the issue with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing last month. Mr. Wen did not deny China's activity, but said it should stop. President George Bush, prior to his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Sydney, Australia, at the APEC summit last week, stated that respect of computer "systems" is "what we expect from people with whom we trade."

The accusations, hard to prove conclusively, still illumine an emerging theater of low-level attacks among nations. This spring, presumed Russian hackers made headlines with a one-off cyberblitz of Estonia, shutting down one of the most wired countries in Europe for a week – blunt payback for removal of a Soviet war memorial.

But China's cyberstrategy is deemed murkier and more widespread. The tenaciousness of Chinese hackers, whose skills were once derided by US cyberexperts, has begun to sink in to Western states and their intelligence services.

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