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Opinion

Google, China, and the coming threat from cyberspace

Cyberspace attacks are set to increase. Here’s why – and here’s what we can do to stop them.

By Ron Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski / January 28, 2010



Toronto

The recent cyberespionage attacks on Google and that company’s subsequent announcement that it would reconsider its search engine services in China gripped the world’s focus and set off a debate about China’s aggressive cybersecurity strategy. 

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The apparent scope of the attacks – more than 30 companies affected, Gmail accounts compromised, human rights groups targeted – took many by surprise. Some observers believe the attacks were highly sophisticated in nature, employing never-before-seen techniques. Many reports concluded that the Chinese government undertook the attacks. 

As principal investigators in the Information Warfare Monitor, a project formed in 2002 to investigate and analyze the exercise of power in cyberspace, we have seen many of these types of attacks first hand in our research, and have followed closely those examined by other researchers. 

From our vantage point, the Google cyberattacks are unusual not in apparent scope or sophistication – as some commentators believe – but rather in terms of the high-profile nature of the victim and the victim’s very public reaction. Indeed, we believe targeted cyber attacks such as these will grow in frequency as cyberspace becomes more heavily contested. 

Defense against cyberattacks

The question is what to do about them.

Solutions won’t be easy. Nor will they be solved by technical means alone. They will require widespread and comprehensive public policy changes, greater awareness of network security practices, and above all else a recognition by governments worldwide that an arms race in cyberspace serves no country’s national strategic interest. 

For their part, companies should be encouraged to be more transparent and willing to share information about attacks on their infrastructure and less concerned about the liabilities of doing so. Google’s actions are exemplary in this regard and may set a new standard of disclosure.

Although many people point to China as an aggressive cyberactor, it is important to understand that cyberspace has become a battleground for intense military competition. Many countries are developing offensive cyberwarfare capabilities, including targeted espionage. Just recently, for example, Dennis Blair, the director of US National Intelligence, argued the United States should be more aggressive in stealing other countries’ secrets in cyberspace. Other countries are less open about such intentions, but no less ambitious. Many successful operations, no doubt, are hidden.

The actors in this intense arms race are not just states. Cyberspace allows anyone with the intent and capability to exploit network vulnerabilities. 

For example, there are countless criminal organizations thriving in the hidden ecosystems of cyberspace, profiting from cyberattacks, cybercrime, and cyberfraud. These organizations employ techniques and tools that are virtually indistinguishable from those that were uncovered in the Google attacks, and by us earlier in our Tracking Ghostnet investigation, a 10-month examination of alleged Chinese cyberspying of numerous diplomatic missions, ministries of foreign affairs, and international organizations. 

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