Friday, July 4, 2008

Chinese hackers attack

Chinese hacked computers, U.S. lawmakers say

The alleged attack renews cyberwarfare concerns.

By Jonathan Adams
Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 2008

Two US congressmen have accused hackers from China of breaking into their computer systems and stealing information on political dissidents, raising concerns at a time of growing global concern about cyberwarfare.

The lawmakers warned that other lawmakers, civilians, and military officials should take steps to protect their laptops and other devices against such break-ins, especially while in China.

The Chinese government has denied any involvement in the cyberattacks.

The two congressmen who made the claims are active in promoting human rights, according to Reuters.

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, said his office computers had been compromised in August 2006 and that he was told by the FBI and other officials the source of the attack was inside China.

Rep. Christopher Smith, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said his computer had also been attacked from China. The New Jersey Republican has sponsored legislation that would prohibit U.S. companies from cooperating with governments that restrict information about human rights and democracy on the Internet.

Representative Wolf said that other US government officials had pressured him not to go public with the claims, according to the Associated Press. "My own suspicion is I was targeted by China because of my long history of speaking out about China's abysmal human rights record," said Wolf, according to the report.

Wolf urged congressional hearings on the break-in and wants to raise awareness of the threat of hacking from China and elsewhere, reports Bloomberg.

He is calling for a closed briefing where officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation can brief House members on technological threats from China and other countries.

"The potential for massive and coordinated cyber attacks against the United States is no longer a futuristic problem,'' Wolf says. "We must prepare ourselves now and develop universal procedures for responding to this threat."

Chris Smith, one of the congressmen targeted in the attacks, told The Washington Post that he believed the hackers may have had Chinese government support.

[The] sophistication of the attacks, in December 2006 and March 2007, and the kind of information involved suggest that the Chinese government might have been behind them.

"The Internet can be used as a terror weapon. It can be used as a disinformation apparatus," Smith said. "And nobody has done that more expertly than the Chinese government."

But a Chinese Embassy official in Washington denied his government was involved in the hacking. That official told The Washington Post that sophisticated hackers in other countries could make their attacks appear to originate from China, regardless of their actual physical location.

ABC News reported that US officials said it's difficult to determine whether hackers from China are backed by the government or operate independently. But it's clear that attacks traced to China-based ISPs (Internet Service Providers, or local hosts) are on the rise.

Computer intrusions from China have dramatically increased in recent years and, according to officials, have included cyber attacks on the Secretary of Defense's e-mail servers in June 2007....

In December 2007, hackers believed to be in China were behind cyber attacks on three of the U.S. National Laboratories, including Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory and California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In those attacks, hackers used e-mails with attachments sent to thousands of lab employees.

The latest charges come amid an investigation into whether a US official's computer was compromised during his visit to China last month and concerns over electronic eavesdropping during the upcoming Beijing Olympics, reports the IDG News Service.

In late May, the contents of a U.S. government laptop may have been copied during a visit to China by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, a matter which is still under investigation.

In early May, U.S. Senator Sam Brownback alleged that the Chinese government had asked major hotel chains to censor their Internet traffic during the 2008 Olympic Games, which will be held in Beijing August 8 to 24. Brownback did not name the hotels involved, but condemned China's human rights record.

Experts say China is clearly ramping up its cyberwar capabilities. The Christian Science Monitor reported last fall that China was in the vanguard of states aiming to use cyberwarfare for political ends. It said experts believe that most Chinese hackers are "gray hats" – meaning they are tech-savvy Chinese nationalists who aren't formal agents of the Chinese government.

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 China'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."

A recent National Journal article claimed that according to US security sources, China-based hackers, including those working for the government, may have played a role in two massive blackouts in Florida and the northeast US in recent years.

The magazine said US intelligence officials had linked the People's Liberation Army to the largest-ever blackout in North America, a 2003 outage across 9,300 square miles in the US Northeast that affected some 50 million people.

Tim Bennett, the former president of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, a leading trade group, said that U.S. intelligence officials have told him that the PLA in 2003 gained access to a network that controlled electric power systems serving the northeastern United States. The intelligence officials said that forensic analysis had confirmed the source, Bennett said. "They said that, with confidence, it had been traced back to the PLA."

However, some commentators reacted skeptically to that report. Writing for a Wired magazine-hosted blog, Kevin Poulsen called the article "cyberwar hysteria," arguing that an exhaustive 6-month investigation into the 2003 blackout had traced the root cause of that outage to the utility company First Energy's failure to trim trees growing into power lines in Ohio.

Now that we're seeing "overgrown trees" between the same scare quotes conspiracy theorists bracket around "lone gunman" and "moon landing," the cybarmageddon hawks have squarely set foot in the realm of 9/11 truthers. I'm waiting for them to blame Chinese hackers for "Hurricane" Katrina.

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