Is China stepping towards cyberwar?
A cyberattack on Tibetan separatists has led to fingers being pointed at the Chinese government - but finding out who's responsible for such strikes is notoriously tricky
You may have already seen the news that more than a thousand computers have been compromised, in what appears to be a well-directed attack against Tibetan exiles. We've covered it extensively, and it's got plenty of headlines.
While the basic details are clear - and well illuminated by reports from researchers in Toronto, Illinois and Cambridge - plenty of questions remain unanswered. The most important revolve around the origins of the strike: where did it come from, and is the Chinese military actively sponsoring these hackers to steal about other nations and administrations?
All this talk of silicon warfare is more than a little reminiscent of the Cold War - tales of hi-tech espionage, secrets being stolen, and brinkmanship by the spokesman of various national factions. But even the researchers who have uncovered the attacks disagree on whether or not there is sufficient evidence of state-sponsored espionage.
In their paper, Shishir Nagaraja and Ross Anderson make the case that it's definitely the result of Chinese state surveillance, calling the perpetrators "agents of the Chinese government". Meanwhile the University of Toronto researchers say that it is too easy to make assumptions.
"Some may conclude that what we lay out here points definitively to China as the culprit," say the University of Toronto researchers in their report. "Certainly Chinese cyber-espionage is a major global concern... but attributing all Chinese malware to deliberate or targeted intelligence gathering operations by the Chinese state is wrong and misleading."
The truth is that, like many of the delicate issues arising around cybersecurity, it is almost impossible to definitively work out who was behind the attack. The Chinese government is certainly well-known for its ambivalent attitude to international computer crime - on one hand claiming that hacking is punishable by death, while apparently training up an army of computer spies on the other.
But over and above the Chinese state's relationship with the internet, there is also a strong and effective group of Chinese neo-nationalists who see it as part of their job to protect the country from its enemies. They organise online protests and attacks. They feel that the western world does not understand the Tibetan problem. They act in an apparently independent manner, but act in a manner that seems to further the Chinese government's agenda.
The truth is, it's very hard to get to the truth. And, even worse, it's not unusual to be without evidence in circumstances like this: the nature of well-conducted, modern cyberwarfare is that it is almost untraceable.
Security experts in Estonia have long blamed Russian government agents for the 2007 attack on their country's infrastructure - but even when I met up with Nato's leading cyberdefence team, they were unable to show any direct evidence that proved it was an act by the Russian state and not an independent group.
It may eventually be clear that the Chinese government is directly behind these cyber-attacks. But state intelligence, at least, has been a known quantity for many years. What if these attacks are the result of something more worrying: a loose conglomeration of disaffected, motivated cyberwarriors who are rallied around an issue or moral stance?
Whether it's nationalist groups or those who identify ideologically with groups like Al Qaeda, this guerilla cyberwar could prove more dangerous in the short term - and much harder to cope with.
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