Cyber risk to US, China relations

GOOGLE’S fight with Chinese censors could become a US-China showdown over cyberwarfare as claims emerge about the size of Chinese attacks on US commercial and defence systems.

The Chinese-originated attack on Gmail accounts of human rights activists that made Google threaten to leave China was ”probably insignificant” compared with the ”theft” of source code and data from Google and at least 33 other leading technology companies, said an IT security consultant who has been briefed on the cyber attacks.

The new details coincided with claims the FBI traced more than 90,000 Chinese-originated attacks last year on the US Defence Department alone.

The Obama Administration has been disappointed that its co-operative approach to China has not been reciprocated on matters ranging from climate change and currency to Iran’s nuclear program.

Washington political analyst Chris Nelson wrote that President Barack Obama could be forced to respond to China ”in a far more aggressive and public way.” ”It takes no genius to predict Congress will go ballistic over the Google, Daily Beast [FBI] and coming revelations,” said the Nelson Report.

But internet censorship is the one topic President Obama has pushed with China, in part because his views resonate with many of China’s 338 million internet users.

The Obama Administration revealed yesterday it had co-ordinated with Google before its announcement, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is reportedly planning to release a new ”technology policy” next week to help web users evade censorship controls.

The consultant, who was briefed on the Google investigation yesterday, said the State Department had invested large sums in ”virtual private network” technology that could help Chinese users step over the ”Great Firewall of China.”

Greg Walton, security development fellow at the Citizen Lab, University of Toronto, said the attacks on Google, American defence systems and computers linked to the Dalai Lama used the same method.

He said users unwittingly dropped ”Trojan” viruses into their computers when opening email attachments, which then enabled hackers to remotely take control of their machines.

He said most of the attacks had been traced to China’s unofficial ”internet army”.

”The dynamic is different in China, because of Chinese Government willingness to work with patriotic actors,” he said. Intelligence agencies estimate there are about half a million such ”actors” willing to engage in cyber warfare.

He said China’s cyber warfare capability was not usually considered as high as the United States’ or Britain’s but may have pulled ahead on ”offensive operations”.

China’s largely state-controlled media, which which usually contains daily protests and claims about American policies to contain China, barely reported Google’s decision to stop censoring its China search engines and perhaps shut its offices.

Jin Canrong, professor of international relations at the People’s University, said the ”honeymoon was over” in US-China relations but the brewing row over cyberspace would barely create a ripple.