Information Warfare: March 23, 2001

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Armies of the Byte; All the talk about Cyberwarfare (attacking computers over the internet) has not produced much actual cyberaction in the military. On the civilian side, costs of dealing with cyberattacks on commercial systems exceed $30 billion a year. Cyberwar for the troops is still largely getting ready and talking about all the horrible things that might happen when the cyber warriors actually use their weapons. But in East Asia, cyberwar is becoming far more real than anywhere else. China and Taiwan have already been skirmishing, and more serious attacks have been attempted, although both sides deny this. Some serious hacking of US military sites has been traced back to Chinese cyber warfare organizations. 

Besides China and Taiwan, the two Koreas, Japan and Singapore have also established cybewarfare units. South Korea has done it to protect South Korea's extensive electronic infrastructure from attacks by North Korea. For decades, North Korea has used terrorism, threats, espionage and anything the poverty stricken, but belligerent, northerners could think of to torment the south. The North Korean leader is known to be an avid personal computer user, so one can imagine that there is enthusiasm for cyberwarfare at the very top. South Korea has a very computer literate population, and discovered that they had far more cyberwarfare talent than they first thought. Once the southerners investigated what cybermischief the northerners could get into, they realized that this cyberwar stuff had potential. Unfortunately, the north has very little electronic infrastructure to attack. But there's always China, Japan and Russia. However, these are nations South Korea wants to do business with. Yes, South Korea now realizes they have a formidable weapon. More so than any of their neighbors, with the possible exception of Japan, South Korea has more local talent who can carry out cyberwar attacks and, more importantly, defend the nation from such assaults.

Japan set up cyberwar units because it realized that it had the largest electronic exposure in their part of the world. Indeed, next to North America, there's probably no juicier cyber target than Japan. The Japanese have concentrated on defense. They have a lot to protect, and for cultural reasons (they are very polite) and some lingering anxiety about their aggressive role in World War II, they have not done much to develop offensive methods. 

Not so the Chinese, where a combination of growing local internet presence, rapidly expanding technology industries and a strong sense of nationalism have created a major cyber power. The Chinese are also unique in that the government has tried, and succeeded to a large extent, in controlling the internet within China. Of course, no nation can completely control the internet. But the Chinese government has gone father than any one else. This effort is aided by the many patriotic internet experts in China who cooperate with the government in creating a powerful cyberwarfare capability. What this means is that thousands of capable, patriotic and internet savvy Chinese are eager to aid the government in this effort. These Chinese outnumber those independent minded hackers who scare governments and businesses in other nations. 

As good as the Chinese hackers are, they have not been able to cover their tracks. Some of their efforts overseas have been traced back to China. We know what the Chinese are up to, at least in general. And we know that they are good. What we don't know is exactly how good and exactly what cyberweapons they would unleash in a wartime, or a near wartime, situation. This is the most frightening aspect of cyberwar. The best weapons are those that are kept secret until used. The victim hit by a new type of cyberattack has to first figure out what's going on before defenses can be devised and damage repaired. The larger and more capable a nations cyberforce is, the more new attacks and tools they can develop. 

Examples of Chinese Cyberwar prowess have been seen in internet battles between Chinese and Taiwanese hackers over the last few years. The dispute between China and Taiwan over Taiwan's independence has been fought most viciously on the internet. The action has largely been minor stuff, trashing each others web sites and the like. But there have been indications of more potent stuff. The most damaging internet attacks require a lot of preparation and this usually involves quietly sneaking into the computers of potential victims to scout out defenses and sometimes leave programs for later use. There are a lot of Chinese cyberwarriors sneaking around the internet these days.

Most cyberweapons also have a short shelf life, as they depend on software flaws that are constantly being discovered and fixed. But this is where China has an edge, for as the number of skilled Chinese software engineers and hackers increases, so does the ability of China to discover, and exploit, internet flaws more rapidly than anyone else. 

Worst of all, China has made no secret of favoring this kind of low cost approach to warfare. While salaries must be paid to some of China's cyberwarriors who staff the Cyberwar headquarters, much of the work is done by patriotic volunteers among the ranks of China's growing number of software engineers and programmers. The eagerness of these cyberwarriors has been seen in the skirmishes with the Taiwanese, where volunteers jumped right in to defend the motherland. The only brings spot in all this is the Taiwanese, who are well aware of their position on the front lines of the looming Cyberwar. But should China unleash its cyberweapons, all of East Asia will suffer first, just before the chaos hits the United States. 

 


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