The fog of (cyber) war

Cybermilitias, black hat hackers and other non-nation-state bad guys blur the lines on the virtual battlefield.

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The government has done a good job of channeling that pride toward its own ends, even if government officials don't issue direct orders to hacker groups, Setzer says. Still, iSight Partners says it has found evidence of direct interaction between large Chinese hacker groups and the government, a relationship Setzer characterizes as "indirect control."

According to Winkler, China has a problem it has to acknowledge. "They have the Internet so filtered that even if [cybercrime] is not supported by the Chinese government, given the hold they have on their Internet connections, they can't claim clean hands," he says. "For them to say, 'We aren't noticing attack traffic' is absurd."

Plausible deniability

Of course, the Chinese government is hardly alone in its aim to manipulate the role of hackers. Theis says cyberconflicts anywhere in the world that are attributed to the efforts of "patriotic hackers" tend to be the stuff of myth. Usually, he says, they're the "well-thought-out efforts of nation-states with well-developed strategies and resources."

Although Theis has no doubt that patriotic hackers participate in cyberconflicts, he's convinced that far more is ascribed to them than real-world conditions would sensibly allow.

"To be truly effective on anything other than the smallest of scales takes strategic planning, resourcing and practiced execution to ensure activities are focused at the right place and time to be a force multiplier, and not wasted on the overkill of nonessential targets or activities," Theis says. "It seems ludicrous that countries that have stated their understanding of the importance of cyberconflict dominance and have dedicated resources to that effort would not use them in a decisive way, but [instead] would depend on patriotic hackers to just happen to get it right and just at the right time."

Still, governments have every reason to want to strain the limits of credibility, Theis says. "It's a nice myth to perpetuate if you're trying to maintain plausible deniability."

Jeremy Kirk and Sumner Lemon of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

Next: A short history of hacks, worms and cyberterror

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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