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Global Viewpoint

China is aiming at America’s soft underbelly: the Internet

Cyberattacks on Google might be just the beginning. America's former director of National Intelligence says the US should do what is necessary to defend itself before there is a catastrophic event.

By Nathan Gardels / February 5, 2010

Google and the National Security Agency (NSA) are engaging in a cooperative investigation to determine who exactly from China was trolling through Google’s proprietary networks, including e-mail exchanges of Chinese dissidents. They are also joining together to develop new defenses against malicious intrusion and attacks on America’s cyberinfrastructure.

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Though America’s cybervulnerability has long been a concern of intelligence agencies, the Google episode has catapulted it to a national security priority.

No one knows more about China’s cyberwar capacities than Mike McConnell, who was director of National Intelligence, the authority over all US intelligence agencies, from February 2007 to January 2009, and director of the NSA from 1992 to 1996. After attacks last spring on the Pentagon and the New York Stock Exchange, I sat down with him to discuss China, the chief suspect then also, and to get the lay of the cyberwar battlefield.

Here is an excerpt of what he had to say.

Nathan Gardels: Defense analysts say that 90 percent of the probes and scans of American defense systems as well as commercial computer networks come from China. Is China the chief culprit?

Mike McConnell: I don’t know if it is 90 percent. Probably the best in the world in the cyberrealm are the United States, the Russians, the British, the Israelis, and the French. The next tier is the Chinese, but they are determined to be the best.

We are an open society. A virtual sieve for cyberpenetration. Most information they can readily download from the Web. It is very easy to scan a network in seconds to determine which two or three of the thousands of computers are not protected with blocking technology. One infects the unprotected computers on the inside, which in turn infects the remaining computers inside the network.

The Chinese are exploiting our systems for information advantage – looking for the characteristics of a weapons system by a defense contractor or academic research on plasma physics, for example – not in order to destroy data and do damage. But, for now, I believe they are deterred from destroying data both by the need to export to the US and by the need to keep stable currency and stable global markets.

But what happens if we have a war? A capability for information exploitation could quickly be used for information attack to destroy systems on which the US depends. Every nation with advanced technology is exploring options to establish policy and rules for how to use this new capability to wage war.

Gardels: So everyone is probing everyone else?

McConnell: Everyone. All the time. US probings are limited to foreigners. We cannot probe in American systems. We would need a warrant for that, and the purpose would have to be foreign intelligence value, approved by a court. Foreign attackers into the US do not have such restrictions.

The point is, we have an intelligence community, managed by the director of National Intelligence, whose purpose is to understand the globe by obtaining foreign information that will give us an advantage and to assist our understanding of those who might in some way threaten our security.

Terrorist groups today are ranked near the bottom of cyberwar capability. Criminal organizations are more sophisticated. There is a hierarchy. You go from nation-states, who can destroy things, to criminals, who can steal things, to aggravating but sophisticated hackers.

At some point, however, the terrorists will get a couple of graduates from one of the best universities with skills in cybercapabilities. It is a mistake to think these terrorists are simply poor peasants or angry preachers. The terror attacks on London (in 2007) were planned and executed by professionally trained medical doctors.

Sooner or later, terror groups will achieve cybersophistication. It’s like nuclear proliferation, only far easier. Once you have the knowledge, you don’t have to spend years enriching uranium and testing long-range missiles. It wouldn’t take long to obtain a sophisticated attack capability. Unlike nation-states that have an interest in a stable globe with stable markets, the terrorists will not be deterred from damaging our data to achieve their goals.