Sep 14, 2007

China's Cyber Probes -- Test of Disruption Tactic?

China's current military doctrine stresses "information dominance", achieved not necessarily through advances in technology, but instead by tactical innovations in the operational sphere.

We have likely been seeing one of these tactical gambits in practice lately.

When suspected Chinese hackers penetrated the Pentagon this summer, reports downplayed the cyberattack. The hackers hit a secure Pentagon system known as NIPRNet – but it only carries unclassified information and general e-mail, Department of Defense officials said.

Yet a central aim of the Chinese hackers may not have been top secrets, but a probe of the Pentagon network structure itself, some analysts argue. The NIPRNet (Non-classified Internet Protocol Router Network) is crucial in the quick deployment of US forces should China attack Taiwan. By crippling a Pentagon Net used to call US forces, China gains crucial hours and minutes in a lightning attack designed to force a Taiwan surrender, experts say.

China's presumed infiltration underscores an ever bolder and more advanced capability by its cybershock troops. Today, of an estimated 120 countries working on cyberwarfare, China, seeking great power status, has emerged as a leader.

"The Chinese are the first to use cyberattacks for political and military goals," says James Mulvenon, an expert on China's military and director of the Center for Intelligence and Research in Washington. "Whether it is battlefield preparation or hacking networks connected to the German chancellor, they are the first state actor to jump feet first into 21st-century cyberwarfare technology. This is clearly becoming a more serious and open problem."

China is hardly the only state conducting cyberespionage. "Everybody is hacking everybody," says Johannes Ullrich, an expert with the SANS Technology Institute, pointing to Israeli hacks against the US, and French hacks against European Union partners. But aspects of the Chinese approach worry him. "The part I am most afraid of is … staging probes inside key industries. It's almost like sleeper cells, having ways to [disrupt] systems when you need to if it ever came to war." ...

Probes of the Pentagon system that would bring US intervention should China attack Taiwan are part of a program dating to the 1990s that links cyberwarfare to real-world military action by China's People's Liberation Army. The very probe shows success in China's long-term program, experts say.

"The Chinese want to disrupt that unofficial network in a crucial time-frame inside a Taiwan scenario," says Mr. Mulvenon. "It is something they've written about. When you read what Chinese strategists say, it is the unclassified network they will go after … to delay deployment. China is developing tremendous capability." ...

Of particular alarm for Washington and other world capitals are so-called "zero-day attacks" – cyberpenetrations that look for software flaws to exploit. This is not an uncommon pastime for hackers. But in China's case, suspicion falls on professional hackers, says Sami Saydjari, a Defense Department computer-security veteran who now heads a firm called Cyber Defense Agency in Wisconsin. ...

For several years, China has focused most of its military research and production on a high-tech air and missile-attack force – to overwhelm Taiwan. Hence, China's probe of the Pentagon NIPRNet. "They want to be able to attack the Net. They don't need a supersexy penetration program," Mulvenon argues. "They just bomb the Net itself. They disrupt the deployment of our military, simultaneously saturate Taiwan, delay the US arrival, and Taiwan capitulates. It's what they talk about."

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