A Fu Manchu of the dot com age?

Claims that Chinese cyber-spies are plotting world domination through the World Wide Web are greatly exaggerated.

James Woudhuysen

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At the G20 summit last week, the West welcomed China as a new and equal player. Just before that, however, paranoia broke out over China’s ability to use IT to bug and disrupt life in the West. Behind the feelgood welcoming of the Chinese to the world’s leading ‘community of nations’, then, lie growing worries about China’s supposed long-term plans for world domination.

Some time back, the Dalai Lama, Buddhist pretender to the throne of Tibet, asked the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies in Toronto to check his IT systems. Reporting on their findings at the end of March, Munk’s researchers, working with the SecDev Group in Ottawa, claimed to have uncovered something much bigger than a threat to the man in saffron robes. They revealed the existence of something they called GhostNet, a China-based plot to hack into 1,295 official, media and NGO machines in no fewer than 103 countries. Indeed, the Canadians insisted that the machines were themselves turned into listening and watching devices (1).

At just the same moment, British officials publicly woke up to an equally unnerving development: China’s telecommunications equipment giant, Huawei, had been fitting out British Telecom’s much-noised Twenty-First Century Network (2). Worse, as The Sunday Times exclaimed, Huawei ‘was allegedly founded with significant funding from the Chinese state’, and China might thus ‘have gained the capability to shut down Britain by crippling its telecoms and utilities’ (3).

In fact, it doesn’t take China to shut down the West. British Telecom exchanges often drop internet service. Power cuts have come to several parts of England in recent months (4). President Barack Obama himself hopes to rebuild America’s electricity grid, so much has it fallen into disrepair. Compared with the peril of Yellow Electrons, the grey circuits of capitalist decay are by far the bigger danger.

As it happens, the Canadian researchers were a lot more scrupulous than those who reported them. They wrote: ‘Attributing all Chinese malware to deliberate or targeted intelligence-gathering operations by the Chinese state is wrong and misleading… China is presently the world’s largest internet population. The sheer number of young digital natives online can more than account for the increase in Chinese malware… Cybercrime kits are now available online, and their use is clearly on the rise, in some cases by organised crime and other private actors.’ (5)

Contrast this with British media reaction to the Munk report. For the Sunday Telegraph’s man in Shanghai, it was simply ‘the latest sign of China’s determination to win a future “information war”’ (6). On the website of the Sun, Munk had ‘not conclusively been able to detect the identity or motivation of the hackers’, but, tellingly, ‘calls to China’s Foreign Ministry and Industry and Information Ministry rang unanswered Sunday’ (7) – as if China’s government should be on call to British tabloids on Sundays to confirm or deny allegations of espionage.

No doubt Beijing is fully engaged in every kind of human- and signals-based intelligence. But so are the authorities in the West. And for The Sunday Times to go on about Huawei’s involvement with the Chinese state is really… an insult to the intelligence. British experts in telecommunications are fully involved with MI5 and MI6. In the US, no fewer than 16 spy agencies exist. There, President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, recently announced that the National Security Agency, which ran George W Bush’s eavesdropping, is likely to get an expanded role (8) – all for defensive purposes, of course.

The new fears about Chinese bugs are part of a wider dread of China. Thus March’s Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009, an annual report sent by the Pentagon to Congress, is more obsessed than its predecessors with China’s prowess in space, and with its capabilities in every kind of military IT (9).

Perhaps that’s no surprise. China, like India, has been visiting the moon; America has ignored it. Pick up a Blackberry handset and, though the software is Canadian, manufacture is done in China.

In 2007, German premier Angela Merkel complained about intrusions into German government IT which, she said, originated in China. In November 2008, a 393-page report to Congress highlighted what it called China’s ‘outer space and cyber space capabilities’ (10). More and more, the Pentagon worries about China’s space-based Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR).

For the moment, though, the West wants to join China more than beat it. In her February tour of Asia, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was emollient about China. Similarly, in March, Clinton agreed to disagree with China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, after five Chinese fishing boats objected to a US navy surveillance vessel loafing about 120km south of Hainan island. ‘We must work hard’, Clinton told reporters, ‘to avoid such incidents’ – especially because incidents like it could have ‘consequences that are unforeseen’ (11).

Right now the emphasis is on working together and being cautious about the consequences of military posturing. However, in military matters, events can quickly get out of control. Today, America and China cooperate against pirates in the Gulf of Aden, and have started to hold talks on security in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Yet if the chaos on Wall Street and in Detroit is anything to go by, the West, even more than China, is fully capable of lurching into incidents with unpredictable and potentially horrendous results.

Western governments have been engaged in all the military and espionage activities that China is involved in – but for a lot longer. Naturally enough, they don’t talk about all the things they get up to. Yet that doesn’t prevent it from moaning on about what China may or may not be getting up to. American and European leaders know that China is forging ahead in all aspects of electronic engineering. They know that China’s intelligence agents are better at English than Western spies are at Mandarin. Their paranoia about China would be laughable if it were not so hypocritical.

America and Britain’s latest charges are sparked by a sense of envy, not a sense of injustice.

James Woudhuysen is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Information Warfare Monitor, Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network, 29 March 2009

(2) BT: 21st Century Network

(3) Spy chiefs fear Chinese cyber attack, The Sunday Times, 29 March 2009

(4) Thousands affected by power cuts, BBC News, 9 February 2009; Power cuts caused by cable faults, BBC News, 25 January 2009; Storm talk, BBC Cambridgeshire

(5) Foreword, Information Warfare Monitor, Tracking GhostNet: Investigating a Cyber Espionage Network, 29 March 2009

(6) China’s global cyber-espionage network GhostNet penetrates 103 countries, Sunday Telegraph, 29 March 2009

(7) Chinese cyber spies revealed, Sun, 29 March 2009

(8) U.S. spy agency may get more cybersecurity duties, Reuters, 26 February 2009

(9) See Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, US Department of Defense. Previous reports are available here.

(10) 2008 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 110th Congress, Second Session, November 2008

(11) US and China ‘vow to avoid rows’, BBC News, 11 March 2009

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