February 19, 2011: Despite spending over a billion dollars a year defending their government networks, Britain recently complained openly of hackers getting into the communications network of the Foreign Office. The government also warned of increasing attacks on British companies. The recent attacks government and corporations were all targeting specific people and data. While China was not mentioned in these official announcements, British officials have often discussed how investigations of recent hacking efforts tended to lead back to China. There is also a strong suspicion, backed up by hacker chatter, that governments are offering large bounties for information from foreign governments. Not information from China, but from everyone else.
China's one of many nations taking advantage of the Internet to encourage, or even organize, patriotic Internet users to obtain hacking services. This enables the government to use (often informally) these thousands of hackers to attack targets (foreign or domestic.) These government organizations arrange training and mentoring to improve the skills of group members. Turkey has over 45,000 of hackers organized this way, Saudi Arabia has over 100,000, Iraq has over 40,000, Russia over 100,000 and China, over 400,000. While many of these Cyber Warriors are rank amateurs, even the least skilled can be given simple tasks. And out of their ranks will emerge more skilled hackers, who can do some real damage. These hacker militias have also led to the use of mercenary hacker groups, who will go looking for specific secrets, for a price. Chinese companies are apparently major users of such services, judging from the pattern of recent hacking activity, and the fact that Chinese firms don't have to fear prosecution for using such methods.
It was China that really pioneered the militia activity. It all began in the late 1990s, when the Chinese Defense Ministry established the "NET Force." This was initially a research organization, which was to measure China's vulnerability to attacks via the Internet. Soon this led to examining the vulnerability of other countries, especially the United States, Japan and South Korea (all nations that were heavy Internet users). NET Force has continued to grow. NET Force was soon joined by an irregular civilian militia; the "Red Hackers Union" (RHU). These are nearly half a million patriotic Chinese programmers, Internet engineers and users who wished to assist the motherland, and put the hurt, via the Internet, on those who threaten or insult China. The RHU began spontaneously in 1999 (after the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia), but the government has assumed some control, without turning the voluntary organization into another bureaucracy. The literal name of the group is "Red Honkers Union," with Honker meaning "guest" in Chinese. But these were all Internet nerds out to avenge insults to the motherland.
Various ministries have liaison officers who basically keep in touch with what the RHU is up to (mostly the usual geek chatter), and intervene only to "suggest" that certain key RHU members back off from certain subjects or activities. Such "suggestions" carry great weight in China, where people who misbehave on the web are very publicly prosecuted and sent to jail. For those RHU opinion-leaders and ace hackers that cooperate, there are all manner of benefits for their careers, not to mention some leniency if they get into some trouble with the authorities. Many government officials fear the RHU, believing that it could easily turn into a "counter-revolutionary force." So far, the Defense Ministry and NET Force officials have assured the senior politicians that they have the RHU under control.
All nations with a large Internet user population have these informal groups, but not all nations have government guidance, and encouragement to make attacks. When there is international tensions between nations with large number of Internet users, it almost always results in the "hacker militias" of both nations going after each other.
The U.S. has one of the largest such informal militias, but there has been little government involvement. That is changing. The U.S. Department of Defense, increasingly under hacker attack, is now organizing to fight back, sort of. Taking a page from the corporate playbook, the Pentagon is sending off many of its programmers and Internet engineers to take classes in how to hack into the Pentagon. Not just the Pentagon, but any corporate, or private, network. It's long been common for Internet security personnel to test their defenses by attacking them. Some "white hat hackers" (as opposed to the evil "black hat hackers") made a very good living selling their attack skills, to reveal flaws, or confirm defenses. Seven years ago, this was standardized with the establishment of the EC (E Commerce Consultants) Council, which certified who were known and qualified white hat hackers. This made it easier for white hats to get work, and for companies to find qualified, and trustworthy, hackers to help with network security. Now the Department of Defense is paying to get members of its Internet security staff certified as white hats, or at least trained to be able to do what the black hats do, or recognize it. While many in the Department of Defense have been calling for a more attack-minded posture, when it comes to those who are constantly attacking Pentagon networks, the best that can be done right now is to train more insiders to think, and operate, like outsiders.
The U.S. Department of Defense is the largest user of computers, and networks, in the world. This includes 11 million Internet users, over six million PCs and over 15,000 networks. This has always attracted a lot of hacker attention. For over a decade, all the services have been scrambling to get their Cyber War defenses strengthened. But so many networks and PCs make an attractive target, and provide many potential weak areas that can be penetrated. The Department of Defense systems suffer thousands of serious attacks a day. This activity is increasing very rapidly with the growing number of smart phones and iPads used by government employees and troops. These devices are powerful computers that happen to be small, and very much connected to the web.