It is no longer news that China is positioning itself as a formidable competitor to the United States with the view of surpassing America to become the number one economy and command the most military superpower as soon as possible. This rivalry is taking a dangerous turn nowadays as China purportedly unleashed series of gigantic cyber-assaults on more than 600 U.S. private, government and corporate organizations.
China’s extent in attacking all sectors of the U.S. economy
An interactive but secret NSA map exclusively obtained by NBC reveals the extent to which the Chinese Government has gone in attacking all sectors of the U.S. economy, from giant companies like defense contractor Lockheed Martin and internet giant Google to the U.S. government and military. This mapping was part of NSA attempts to monitor the frequency and impacts of cyber-terrorism against U.S. corporations and private and governmental establishments. On the map, over 600 red dots indicate successful efforts made by Chinese hackers to steal or intrude on the systems of American organizations over a period of five years. This spate of cyber-attacks is prevalent in major U.S. industrial locations. Whole areas from Boston to Washington are almost blanketed in red dots, meaning the Chinese cyber-thieves have concentrated their efforts in those particular regions and in cities like Silicon Valley, Detroit, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, L.A., and Seattle. California alone has a total of 50 dots, which means the state was aggressively targeted by Chinese cyber-attackers aimed at extracting as much IT information as possible from the companies operating in the state.
The Chinese government and its myriad of agencies have always vehemently denied any attempt to hack U.S. computers. Recently America witnessed the biggest cyber-attack in its history when the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the agency which hires U.S. government workers and approves security clearances, was hacked, spilling up to 4 million U.S. government employees’ personal and confidential information into the hacker’s hands. Sensitive information like date of birth, social security numbers, phone numbers, names and addresses are thrown into cyberspace, putting the affected employees into danger.
Initial investigations by the FBI and other intelligence agencies indicated that China may have been the main source of the OPM cyber-attack. Even Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican on the Intelligence Committee, didn’t mince words when she publicly called China out for this daring attack. Her clarion call and those of other concerned U.S. intelligence units have always met with harsh criticisms from Chinese officials. Zhu Haiquan, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy to the U.S., referred to such accusations by U.S. authorities as “not responsible and counterproductive.” He went further to say, “Cyber-attacks conducted across countries are hard to track and therefore the source of attacks is difficult to identify.” He concluded that this problem can “only be addressed by international cooperation based on mutual trust and mutual respect.”
China’s interest in hacking U.S. corporations
People may want to ask this thought-provoking question: Why would China be interested in hacking American corporations in the first place? Past happenings have shown that China is always digging for information about the United States, which may include powerful and confidential information about its industrial and military capabilities. Is it because China wants to detect America’s strength and work on beating the country at its own game? Probably. Countries have somehow been involved in espionage against one another in the past to extract secret information from their rivals. But the espionage game had gone sophisticated with the introduction of the internet, which provides unique opportunities for shady intrusions into a competitors’ databases without being discovered. As the number of Chinese cyberspace denizens increases, so also does the threat they pose to the United States, its military and corporations.
Addressing the danger of cyber-espionage and particularly the attack on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Ken Ammon, chief strategy officer of network security firm Xceedium, compared the OPM attack to other international espionage acts that have happened elsewhere in the world. And he worried that the bulk of information that had been obtained from the OPM’s database may backfire on the United States because the hackers could use the confidential information they obtained to impersonate U.S. government employees–an action that could bring huge dishonor to their integrity. In his own words, Ammon asserted that “this is an attack on the nation.” So does he expect it to be treated as an act of war?
Even though the Chinese government has a long-standing order against hacking, the country has struggled with an army of little-known domestic hackers that has attacked Chinese government agencies like marine agencies, shipping companies and research institutions. On July 28, the state news agency Xinhua reported that a group of hackers named OceanLotus hacked into Chinese government servers, obtaining confidential information. As a result of this, it is impossible for the Chinese to debunk the accusation that some of the hacking done in the United States did truly originate from China, but what Chinese officials are claiming is that those attacks were not supported or authorized by the Chinese government.
China’s efforts to get their hands on Google’s and Lockheed Martin’s secrets
What is baffling about the NSA map concerning the cyber-attack in the United States is that the targets weren’t only IT companies or other corporations, but the dots also revealed that U.S. military secrets were specifically targeted, as were companies linked to American critical infrastructure, such as telecommunications, internet architecture and electrical power. Automakers and pharmaceutical companies were not spared either, an indication that made the NSA conclude that these attacks were state-sponsored. According to the briefing obtained by NBC, the NSA Threat Operations Center (NTOC) stated in February 2014 that China is particularly interested in unearthing any information that could give them access to Google’s and Lockheed Martin’s secrets. Their spying efforts have also spread to other strategic areas like air traffic controls and defense technology.
The U.S. government has moved swiftly to protect its employees affected by the OPM attack and another 25,000 Department of Homeland Security employees whose confidential information was breached in a November 2014 attack on the department. Since then, the OPM and other victims of Chinese cyber-attacks have upgraded their networks’ security, and affected employees are offered free credit monitoring and identity theft insurance for at least 18 months.
Responding to these dastardly acts of cyber-espionage, U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to launch sanctions against foreign sponsors of cyber-attacks on American businesses, government agencies and the military. He believed that unchecked cyber-espionage may threaten not only national security but also U.S. Foreign Policy and economic stability.
It seems clear that most of the cyber-attacks against the United States are coming out of China, but what many network security experts could not confirm is whether they are indeed state-sponsored or just the wicked acts of a group of over-ambitious hackers based in China. And if those mischievous hackers are not necessarily working for the interest of the Chinese government, then the burden lies on China to fish out the culprits, dismantle their groups and prosecute them accordingly. Until such a significant action is taken, China cannot completely absolve itself from the cyber-crimes committed on its territories. All American companies, governmental agencies and the military can do at the moment is to keep upgrading their network security in order to frustrate every effort at breaching their system and exposing their corporate and confidential secrets to those Chinese criminals.