In the early years computer hacking was pretty much limited to individuals who acquired unconventional skills and the software to apply it. Over time hacking became more organized, with gangs employing hackers to engage in a variety cyber crimes. These days the hacking art has become almost an institutionalized resource in an information war that is being waged by nations at the highest political levels.
Despite denials of culpability, China has been repeatedly fingered as one of the worst culprits when it comes to the smile-and-hack routine.
Recently German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was toasted in Beijing by a smiling Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, as they praised relations between the two countries. While this show of affection was going on, in the electronic corridors of the internet it was a very different story. Chinese cyber bandits have had considerable success in placing spy software on computers located in the German Chancellery and foreign ministries.
A recent Der Spiegel article describes the techniques used by Chinese hackers. A favorite method is to conceal espionage programs in Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint files, which infect IT installations when opened. German investigators have tracked the source of the attack to Lanzhou and Canton provinces – also to Beijing. Investigators believe the operations were being directed by the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA), and that the programs were being routed via computers located in S. Korea in an attempt to disguise the origins of the attack.
The PLA has also been targeting the Pentagon’s computer systems. A recent attack, described in some reports as “an onslaught” went on for several months and eventually succeeded in penetrating the system, forcing officials to shut down the part of the network that had been compromised.
Given its extensive international connections, Pentagon computer networks are vast. It operates 3.5 million computers across 65 countries, including 35 internal networks.
The most secure network used by the Pentagon is Siprnet. It handles top secret information. According to official sources high end Siprnet security has never been breached. The part of the network which the Chinese have succeeded in piercing is Niprnet, which mainly handles non-classified information. According to a Pentagon source, China has downloaded 10 to 20 terabytes of data from Niprnet. There are around three million daily scans of the GID or Global Information Grid, the Defence Department’s main network artery.
Experts have different views on how the Chinese managed to pull off these attacks. One of the more likely scenarios is that hackers obtained access to a less secure computer and then exploited its flaws in order to extend the attack to other computers higher up in the network.
US officials are well aware of Chinese cyber espionage. It’s been going on since 2003 and has included ‘sweeps’ of US intelligence, gathering everything from flight information to aircraft plans. The Americans even coined a name for the Chinese hacking raids – Titan Rain – and tracked the origins of most of them to Guangdong where there is known to be a large PLA presence. Attacks have also been directed at government networks in the UK. The British Foreign Office network was singled out for special attention.
Despite Chinese denials, there is little doubt that intelligence gathering operations have official sanction. Chinese writings over recent years attest to a keen interest in cyber warfare. Some of these books offer theories that almost amount to a doctrine of information warfare.
A book entitled Unrestricted Warfare, authored by two PLA colonels, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, offers the following insight … “The new principles of war are no longer ‘using armed force to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will,’ but rather are ‘using all means, including armed force or unarmed force, military and nonmilitary, and lethal and nonlethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.”
Information wars are rapidly becoming a major feature of life in the 21st century. It is believed there are as many as 120 countries that engage in cyber warfare. Chinese denials that they engage in this activity are contradicted by a white paper in which there is explicit reference to “informational armed forces” – forces described as being one of the three pillars of Chinese military strategy.