Information Warfare: China Turns Unix Into A Weapon

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May 14, 2009: For nearly a decade now, China has been trying to get business and government users to adopt Unix (and later Linux) as their operating system. Most Chinese businesses, and many government departments, continue to use Microsoft operating systems. They do this because Microsoft Windows is widely pirated in China, and there's a large amount of pirated software you can use only on Windows systems. Windows is very vulnerable to hacker attack, and Unix is not. But more games run on Windows machines, and that is important even in China.

While the Chinese government continues to push the adoption of Linux, they are now mandating that government servers use a Unix variant operating system, developed in China, called Kylin. After that, the government will try and force all Chinese businesses to adopt a Chinese version of Linux or Unix for their desktop and laptop PCs. All this is nothing new, but there is a sense of urgency to it.

Five years ago, the Chinese found that, while their own Cyber War forces were capable of launching attacks over the Internet, their own computers are already overrun with viruses and worms. A government survey found that, in 2003, 87.9 percent of Chinese PCs connected to the Internet were infected, and most were still infected in 2004. While the United States is regarded as the one nation most dependant on the Internet, it is also the country with the largest amount of effort dedicated to protecting it’s PCs from infection by “malware” (viruses, worms, Trojans and the like.) China, on the other hand, had developed an outlaw mentality when it came to software. So most users have pirated operating systems and applications on their machines. While there are pirated versions of anti-virus software available, using this kind of protection is not popular. China is trying to get around this by using Linux, a free operating system that is far less vulnerable to attack via the Internet. But Linux does not have as much software available for it, and users are reluctant to abandon Windows, and all the neat games and other software that only runs on Windows powered computers. The Windows based games, it turns out, are a major obstacle in getting many users, even business users, to switch. It seems that playing games on company computers after hours is a valuable fringe benefit for workers, and costs the company little. No one likes to talk about this form of compensation, but there it is.

The most serious aspect of all this is the number of government computers that are using Windows, and are infected. The government has found that switching to Linux is difficult, as there are not enough computer experts to carry this out. Microsoft Windows is much easier to install, and maintain, than Linux. Many more Chinese computer manufacturers are shipping PCs with Linux installed. But Microsoft has a huge head start, and only about two percent of the PCs shipped in China in 2003 had Linux on them.

China got around this by subsidizing Linux training for Chinese engineers and computer technicians. The government also subsidized the development of the Kylin Unix based server software.  Kylin is shareware, and anyone can download it. But Kylin is also designed to be very secure, much more secure than Microsoft server software, and most other similar products.

Chinese hackers (mainly the Internet gangsters the government tolerates) are the source of many of the viruses and worms that rapidly spread worldwide. But these nasty little concoctions have, in the past, done more damage, proportionately, in China than they do in the United States. With software like Kylin, China hopes to develop defenses, and rid the country of much of the pirated software that still runs most of the economy. With Chinese servers protected by Kylin, foreign servers will still be vulnerable because they use a Microsoft operating system.

 


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