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US cybersecurity report points accusing finger at China

An annual report to Congress says China is the biggest threat to US cybersecurity, spelling out in some detail who might be doing the cyberspying.

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Citing a study by Akamai Technologies, the congressional report suggests that 16 percent of Internet attacks worldwide originate in China – making it the world’s top offender. Another cited study, by a service provider named CloudFlare, notes that global Internet attacks declined by more than half on Oct. 1, 2011 – China’s national holiday.

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Chinese embassy officials in Washington routinely deny responsibility for cyberespionage against US targets.

"China's rapid development and prosperity are attributed to its sound national development strategy and the Chinese people's hard work, as well as China's ever enhanced economic and trade cooperation with other countries that benefits all," a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy wrote in an e-mail responding to a government report last year on cyberspying. "Willfully making unwarranted accusations against China is irresponsible, and we are against such demonization efforts as firmly as our opposition to any forms of unlawful cyberspace activities."

Curiously, cybertheft could hurt China’s economic and military prospects in the long run, some suggest.

"China’s national strategy to acquire technology illicitly from Western companies handicaps its own development," James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. "Beijing’s economic plans have for decades emphasized the need to build indigenous high-tech industries and reduce dependence on foreign producers. Pilfering Western technology is a crutch that keeps China from moving up the ‘value chain’ and becoming a nation of innovators."

The US is working to develop a response to the threat it sees in China. In 2010, US Cyber Command became fully operational within the Defense Department. Beyond that, the White House reportedly issued on Wednesday a secret policy document that outlines what actions the US military can take against cyberattacks.

In a world where the line between cyberespionage and a cyberattack on a computer network can be exceedingly fine, the directive points to the dangers of an escalating cyberwar. Indeed, the congressional report says China's cyberespionage has also alienated Japan and some European countries, in part spurring them to embark on a cyberweapons race the report calls "destabilizing."           

"We're all continuing to build our military forces while at the same time making all these semi-threats to each others," says John Bumgarner, research director for the US Cyber Consequences Unit, a nonprofit security think tank that advises government and industry. "We're all economic partners, but we're all on this cyberespionage path where people are routinely breaking in to steal the latest and greatest fighter plane plans. At some point, it may cross the line and become an act of war. In the cyber world, that line is a very blurred line. It's a path we need to get off."

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