The US has charged five Chinese military officers with stealing trade secrets from American industry. The diplomatic row is huge. Is this a sign of how serious cyber espionage has become?
Why are we talking about this?
In the northern suburbs of Shanghai there is a plain white tower block which is entirely unremarkable, except for one thing: it is home to Unit 61398, one of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) elite cyber infiltration and espionage teams. US intelligence agencies have been complaining for years that the group has been attacking vital American infrastructure, but this week the US Justice Department took unprecedented action and indicted five PLA army officers for a conspiracy to steal US intellectual property.
Why is this important?
Despite long-running accusations of cyber espionage, this is the first time that specific officers have been charged. There is practically no chance that China would hand over its officers to be tried in an American court, so the indictment is being interpreted as a symbolic move. China’s government is furious. Its foreign minister has labelled the allegations ‘extremely ridiculous’ and demanded the US ‘immediately rectify its mistake.’
What is cyber espionage?
It is when hackers working for a government hack into important targets from another country’s infrastructure or corporations. They then steal intellectual property and personal data or destroy valuable information. The US has accused the five Chinese officers of trying to steal technology from a nuclear power plant designer, hacking the email addresses of government employees and breaking into the servers of newspapers like the New York Times.
Is the fault entirely with China?
The Chinese might accuse America of hypocrisy on this point. NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden released a huge trove of classified documents proving that the US has an enormous global cyber espionage programme. The US banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from establishing itself in the US, fearing that the company was being used by the PLA to spy on America. Yet Snowden suggests the US had actually hacked into Huawei’s databases and was in fact using it to spy on China.
Are other countries involved in cyber warfare?
There are many other known examples of countries attacking each other online. In 2010, Iran’s nuclear facilities were heavily damaged by a computer worm called Stuxnet, believed to have been developed by the US or Israel. Then last year, South Korea was hit by sophisticated cyber attacks which shut down three major banks and caused at least $800m worth of damage. North Korea is thought to be the culprit. These are just a few examples of known attacks and it is highly likely that many go unreported.
Why are cyber attacks so troubling?
The problem is that they are so hard to trace. A government can help its hackers to steal other countries’ information, but it is then very difficult for the hacked country to prove what has happened. Hackers can break into a victim’s server and lurk there for months gathering information while remaining undetected.
What happens now? Are we entering a new age of cyber warfare?
While China is currently furious with America, analysts hope the tough stance will give countries a firmer understanding that cyber attacks will have repercussions.
Former US defence secretary Leon Panetta warns that in the future a collective cyber attack could be as dangerous as a ‘cyber Pearl Harbour’, although experts say it is unlikely that a war will ever be fought entirely online. But, as the internet provides hackers with almost complete anonymity, government-sponsored attacks are likely to become more common in the future.
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Lecturer: Abdulkhaliq Mohamed Sheikh Osman- Birmingham Uk