National Security: Chinese cyberattacks on American computer systems are on the rise. Is China's purchase of a U.S. computer company part of preparation for an electronic Pearl Harbor?
Buried in the Pentagon's annual report on China's military capabilities released in July is a section on the development of methods of attacking computer systems by the Chinese military. The report noted that the People's Liberation Army sees computer network operations as "critical to seize the initiative" in establishing "electronic dominance" in a conflict with a potential enemy.
High technology is our military's greatest strength, but potentially its greatest weakness.
The Pentagon today uses more than 5 million computers on 100,000 networks at 1,500 sites in 65 countries.
The Pentagon logged over 79,000 attempted intrusions into its computer systems last year, with about 1,300 successfully gaining access to a Defense Department computer. Some actually temporarily reduced the Army's military capabilities.
Among the units successfully "hacked" were the Army's 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions and the 4th Infantry Division. According to the Pentagon, most of the attempted incursions originated in the People's Republic of China, which the Gartner Group, a global research firm, estimates will have 242 million Internet users by the end of this year.
China is the world's third largest PC market, but that market is not necessarily for the purpose of providing China's citizens with free and unfettered access to information from and communication with the outside world.
In the first three months of 2005 alone, 16,000 Internet cafes were shut down by the Chinese government. It has 40,000 Internet police on the lookout for sites that may deal with issues like Tibet, Taiwan, human rights and the banned Falung Gong.
No, China may have a different purpose in mind for the information superhighway. The December purchase of IBM's personal computer division by the Chinese computer company Lenovo may be less of a business investment than a means of providing China with the latest PC technology and computers to be used in a mass cyberattack.
As the Pentagon report warned, "The PLA has likely established information warfare units to develop viruses to attack enemy computer systems and networks, and tactics to protect friendly computer systems and networks."Also noted was the fact that recent military exercises have included information warfare as a component and that "recent exercises have incorporated offensive operations, primarily as first strikes against enemy networks."
China's military planners know that it will be awhile before they can seriously challenge the U.S. in terms of military hardware and global reach. But they hope to exploit our reliance on computers for functions such as command and control and real-time battlefield intelligence.As the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Security Review Commission states:
"The Chinese realize they cannot win a traditional war against the U.S. (in Asia) and are seeking unorthodox ways to defeat the U.S. in any such conflict," such as an attack on Taiwan.
According to the USCC, China's potential cybertarget list includes "forward-based command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence nodes, air bases, aircraft carriers and sea- and space-based command and control platforms."
So far most of the attacks have been merely annoying, sort of like drive-by shootings using a water pistol, but they have been growing in number, sophistication and effectiveness.
Unless we are prepared, our next Pearl Harbor may not begin with an ominous "Tora, Tora, Tora" but with the innocent sounding "You've got mail."