harvesting the talents of its private sector in order to bolster offensive and
defensive computer network operations capabilities," said a secret state
department cable from June 2009.
Tampering with logistics
Since 2002, cyber intruders, apparently from China, have exploited vulnerabilities in the Window's operating system to steal login credentials in order to gain access to hundreds of US government and defence contractor systems, according to a 2008 cable.
China, for its part, says it is ready for online conflict should it arise. "Of late, an internet tornado has swept across the world... massively impacting and shocking the globe. Behind all this lies the shadow of America," said a recent article published in the Communist-Party controlled China Youth Daily newspaper, signed by Ye Zheng and Zhao Baoxian, who are scholars with the Academy of Military Sciences, a government linked think-tank.
"Faced with this warm-up for an internet war, every nation and military can't be passive but is making preparations to fight the internet war," the article said.
That attacks apparently came from China does not, onto itself, implicate the Chinese government. Internet or IP addresses which delineate where a computer is physically located can be compromised, allowing users in one country to take over a computer somewhere else to launch attacks.
"How do you know where to strike back? You don't," says Bruce Schneier, a technology expert and author of several books who The Economist magazine describes as a "security guru".
"You don't have nationality for cyber attacks, making retaliation hard," he told Al Jazeera.
But the nature of the Chinese state, where information is closely controlled, most corporations are linked to the Communist Party apparatus and dissidents are crushed, means the government likely had some knowledge of what was happening, Stiennon says.
And, even if the Google attack was carried out by rogue hackers, American defence planners haven't been taking any chances. One possible scenario involves a Chinese move to re-take Taiwan -- an island which China views as a renegade -- despite the US and UN considering it a sovereign country.
"The Chinese have looked at their biggest potential military adversary, the US, and decided that their biggest weaknesses are that they are far away and dependent on computers," says Kuehl from the defence university. He thinks likely Chinese strategies are twofold: The obvious "degrading enemy military apparatuses in the theatre of war" and "preventing the enemy from getting there". Cyber attacks, targeting battle ship deployments and logistics, would play decisively in the latter.
"The threat, from a military perspective, isn't data denial, it is data manipulation," Kuehl says. "What do you do when the data on your screen is wrong and air traffic controls, money, deployment orders and personnel have all been tampered with?"
Misdirection and censorship
Regardless of China's broader aims or involvement from the Chinese government in recent cyber mischief against Google, there is nothing new or impressive about recent cyber attacks, even though the international media has focused on them, Schneier says. "Millions of these kinds of attacks happen all the time," he says. To him, recent phishing operations against Google are not even worthy of a blog post, as such events happen so frequently.
Chris Palmer, the technology director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation advocacy group, thinks recent rhetoric about cyber war is a "smokescreen to limit freedom of speech on the internet".
"If I was being cynical, this campaign [about cyber security] is being launched by defence contractors to drum up a threat and get money from it," Palmer told Al Jazeera.
The US state department's tough talk about physical reprisals is not the way to defend American infrastructure from attacks, he says. The solution is much simpler: Taking sensitive data off the internet entirely.
Gaining access to military documents or networks controlling physical infrastructure like water treatment plants and nuclear facilities "should be like Mission Impossible, requiring a physical presence". In the film, Tom Cruise has to sneak into a heavily guarded room to physically access a computer with secret information.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, power plants, for example, ran on private networks where the censors would talk to the controllers, Palmer says. "Now things that are supposed to be private have become virtually private, going over the same lines as internet traffic." As getting online became cheaper, and operating private networks became more costly and cumbersome compared to using the standard internet, companies began using the regular net.
"Not being on the internet costs more for dollars and opportunity cost," he says. "The design and the reality don't match anymore, but the design was supposed to be private." And this semi-public link to the broader net leaves vital systems potentially open to attack.
While military contractors propose new products to defend against online threats, commercial cyber crime -- where companies seek data on competitors and rivals try to steal industrial secrets -- may be a bigger issue than fears of nation to nation conflicts spilling onto the internet.
"The [US] defence department, just like everyone else, is struggling with the rapid rise of cyber threats," says Richard Stiennon, the security analyst. "It is all new. They don't have a basis in international law or jurisdictional avenues from which to build a cyber response."
And, the need for better international norms for governing cyber conflict is one of the few points of agreement between analysts. "The big thing here is that there is nothing magic about cyberspace," Schneider says."Everything that is true is still true when you put the word 'cyber' in front of it."
Some may say that international laws are often worth little more than the paper on which they are printed. And, sadly, the ability to exert force still determines the international pecking order. But, it may still be better to have an unenforceable framework for online conflict than none at all.
As Bruce Schneier puts it, "I think a UN conference on cyber war would be a great thing to do".
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