Alleged China attacks could test U.S. cybersecurity policy

The attacks on Google and more than 30 other Silicon Valley companies by agents allegedly working for China is focusing renewed attention on the issue of state-sponsored cyber attacks and how the U.S. government should respond to them.

The U.S. has no formal policy for dealing with foreign government-led threats against U.S. interests in cyberspace. With efforts already under way to develop such a policy, the recent attacks could do a lot shape the policy and fuel its passage through Congress.

In a revelation that was surprising for its boldness, Google on Tuesday said that agents possibly working on behalf of the Chinese government had hacked into its computers -- and those of more than 30 other multi-national companies. Also hit: Adobe .

This is not the first time Beijing has been accused of state-sponsored espionage. Over the past five years, China has been implicated in dozens of attacks involving U.S. commercial, government and military targets. The most sensational of these involved a Chinese hacking group called Titan Rain , which in the early 2000s is believed to have stolen U.S. military and nuclear information.

For the most part, the official U.S. response to the attacks amounted to little more than expressions of outrage and protest by lawmakers. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton released a statement asking the Chinese government for an explanation for the attacks, which raised "very serious concerns and questions." On Wednesday, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that attacks like the one against Google must be confronted "aggressively and with all available means."

"The official response will be, 'We are highly upset about this and we demand you stop it,'" said Ira Winkler, president of the Internet Security Advisors Group. (Winkler is also the author of Spies Among Us and a Computerworld columnist.) "The reality of the situation is we are screwed. The political reality is that China, in large part, is funding the U.S. deficit. We have no leverage.

"We just can't cut China off," he said.

Articulating a response to government-led cyber attacks isn't easy.

"We have to keep one thing in mind -- it is extremely difficult to attribute a cyber attack to a foreign government," said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a Washington-based think tank. "There is often a lack of certainty in that regard that makes it really difficult to decide what kind of response to make."

And even if the evidence is there, it's futile to launch any kind of cyber-retaliation, he said. "That's something that should be off the table. You don't want to have a cyberwar where you fight fire with fire. That could burn the whole house down."

Instead, what's needed is a measured diplomatic response, where the issue is raised with China when it wants U.S. cooperation on other matters, he said. "The State Department has to make it clear that these attacks are so serious they warrant a diplomatic response. I am not sure that level of commitment has been demonstrated yet," Nojeim said.

Any victories gained from cyber-retaliation are likely to be temporary, at best, Winkler said. "If you can identify the systems that are attacking us and make sure you are attacking the right systems, theoretically, that might work" to head off another attack, he said. "But that's like throwing sand in the eyes of somebody who is beating you up." It can be effective -- but only for a while, he said.

That doesn't mean, nothing can be done. U.S. organizations that are targets of attacks from China first need to bolster their defenses, said Amit Yoran, former director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Cyber Security Division. The continuing success Chinese agents have in penetrating U.S. networks points to ineffective security -- and sophisticated attackers, Yoran said.

"Companies such as Google have very, very sharp security teams, but the technologies they rely on are inadequate," said Yoran, who is currently CEO of security vendor NetWitness Corp. "We have developed a technology base in modern computing that is indefensible against modern threats."

What's needed is a security approach that focuses on continuous monitoring of networks and data, not one based solely on prevention.

"Whining about this won't stop it," said Alan Paller director of research for the SANS Institute, a Bethesda, Md.-based security institute. "Cyber-based military espionage and economic espionage are radically effective programs for the Chinese government," and it's unlikely that policy statements are going to do any good, he said. "There are simply too many attackers with too many motives to think that a policy of deterrence would be more than minimally effective."

At the federal government level, at least, "it is [security] skills with good tools that allow organizations to defend themselves," Paller said. "Sadly, these skills are in radically short supply."

The U.S government has fewer than 1,000 people with the advanced skills needed to fight in cyber space at "world-class levels," he said. What's needed are between 20,000 and 30,000 cybersecurity warriors. "Our competitors have even more."

Companies outsourcing work to China, or doing business there or in other developing nations such as India, also need to be aware of the heightened risks to their intellectual property, Winkler said. "Companies need to look at things much more strategically," he said. While it may be cheaper to outsource manufacturing in countries such as China and India, the long term costs could be high if they're not careful.

"Many are not looking at the strategic risks of a rival stealing their technology and selling counterfeit goods," he said.

As for official government cyber policies, just because the U.S doesn't have an official policy for handling attacks doesn't mean it's sitting on its hands, said one analyst who asked not to be named. "One reason why the U.S might not have come up with any rules of the road is because the NSA and other intelligence agencies are involved in the same kind of activity," he said.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld . Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan , send e-mail to or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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