World must check cyber warfare


ONLINE ESPIONAGE AND HACKING: This is no longer an issue of US versus China

CHINA'S Parliament, the National People's Congress, this week will nominate Xi Jinping, the Communist Party leader, as the country's new president and Li Keqiang as premier.

High on the new leadership's list of priorities should be an attempt to work out with the United States and other countries an accord on the rules of the road for cyber space. China is widely seen as the most egregious offender in the world, not only in terms of spying against governments but also stealing proprietary information from companies, presumably to give its state-owned enterprises a leg up.

All governments spy and international law does not outlaw espionage. Thus, in his state of the union address, President Barack Obama excoriated those who had launched cyber attacks on the US not for attempting to pilfer government information but for "seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems".

Any country that attempts to make use of such a capability would be carrying out an act of war. And the targeted country would be justified in taking preemptive defensive measures.

Cyber warfare is a new field and perpetrators are difficult to track down, since a single individual with a computer can launch an attack. Its victims are not only governments but also include companies, the media and think tanks. Such non-state actors can be compared with civilians, who should not be targeted by any side in a war.

The Chinese government says that it does not have a cyber army and "Chinese laws prohibit cyber attacks and China has done what it can to combat such activities in accordance with Chinese laws and regulations".

Recently, it has asserted that two military websites were the targets of more than 100,000 cyber attacks a month last year, with most of the attacks originating in the US.

Washington has not denied that it engages in hacking -- most people assume that it does -- but it has insisted that the US government doesn't carry out state-sponsored hacking for corporate espionage. The US and China have discussed cyber security as part of their Strategic Security Dialogue but evidently have not made much progress. Officials have also not been able to identify confidence building measures to reduce distrust. What is needed is to widen the cyber dialogue and bring in other countries so that it is not a case of the US versus China.

Indeed, hacking has become such a universal phenomenon that most countries would probably agree that something needs to be done about it, but few can say exactly what. One approach could be to decide who are the "women and children" in this conflict, who should not be harmed. Perhaps there can be general agreement that companies engaged in legitimate businesses should not be targeted by states. Since both the US and China say they are not engaged in such behaviour, they should have no objection to signing on to such an accord, along with other countries.

Of course, there would also need to be procedures established for investigating charges of violation as well as penalties.

So far, one of the best publicised cases was an attack in 2009 on Coca-Cola, which occurred when the company was attempting to acquire China Huiyuan Juice Group for US$2.4 billion (RM7.45 billion). Hackers were apparently able to repeatedly access the company's confidential files. The deal subsequently collapsed.

Another case was that of Nortel Networks, the Canadian technology company, which filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Three weeks ago, Brian Shields, former senior systems security adviser at Nortel, said in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that spying by hackers allegedly based in China was "absolutely" a "considerable factor" in the company's collapse.

"When they see what your business plans are, that's a huge advantage," he said.

"It's unfair business practices that really bring down a company of this size."

Shields did not accuse the Chinese government of involvement but called on both Canada and China to investigate.

The Chinese embassy in Canada has said China not only "strictly prohibits" hacking but "stands ready to step up international cooperation in this field".

This is an encouraging sign and the Obama administration should take advantage of it. Washington should let China understand that the cyber charges are threatening the bilateral relationship, which both sides value. What is needed now is a platform for international cooperation.

China should understand that its national reputation is very much at stake.

The United States and Chinese national flags hanging outside a hotel in Beijing. Cyber charges are threatening Washington-Beijing relations. AFP pic

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