US-China cyber warfare's new face

US-China cyber warfare's new face

SINGAPORE - The five officers from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) indicted by the United States on charges of computer hacking and economic espionage will never have to stand trial in an American court: China and the US do not have an extradition treaty, and the accused are hardly likely to volunteer for trial.

But the Chinese authorities would be gravely mistaken if they dismiss this episode as just a US publicity prank. For the indictment - the first of its kind in American legal history - represents a considerable shift in the US strategy of dealing with cyber security. And it may also be an ominous pointer about the future of cyber warfare.

At first glance, the Chinese have a point when they accuse Washington of being disingenuous on such matters.

As the revelations from US computer specialist turned whistle-blower Edward Snowden indicate, the Americans themselves are engaged in a vast, global cyber-snooping exercise.

However, while the Snowden revelations raise disturbing questions about privacy rights, ethics and America's relations with its allies, none has indicated the existence of a deliberate US programme targeting foreign corporations in order to steal their know- how. But that is precisely what the US alleges China is doing.

Stories about Chinese commercial spying are so common that they no longer even raise an eyebrow. Computer servers of multinational companies are probed on a daily basis. E-mail accounts are hacked to "harvest" personal data about people; these are then used to send spoof e-mails containing malicious software code which look convincing enough to trick their recipients into opening them. Then there is the old technique of tweaking the code on a company's website, so that anyone visiting it ends up sending information elsewhere.

Western intelligence agencies have long debated whether this Chinese behaviour really enjoys the support of Beijing's top political leadership. Some analysts claimed that China's spies could not be so persistent and so brazen unless they acted on explicit orders. Others have suggested that at least some of China's commercial spying operations are "cowboy" affairs, private undertakings by Chinese military staff who then sell the information to China's corporate sector.

But there is increasingly a realisation that, while "cowboy" operations sometimes do occur, the bulk of China's commercial cyber-hacking activity is systematic. And it is not only growing, but also changing in character.

The information Chinese hackers now want is not just related to innovative technologies and blueprints, but is also increasingly directed at spying on the merger and acquisition policies of Western firms, and on any commercial activities related to the trade in oil, gas and other minerals.

This is directly connected with the new emphasis of Chinese companies on overseas expansion and on moving up the trading value chain. It has the feel of a coordinated operation. And it seems destined to grow in intensity.

It is impossible to exaggerate the level of frustration felt among Western security planners about such developments. Since they could not legally discriminate between commercial companies, Western governments initially tried to offer cyber-security advice to everyone. But the information provided was too general and too low-grade to be of benefit.

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