Monday, February 8, 2010

Cyberwar With China: Former Intelligence Chief Says It Is Aiming at America's "Soft Underbelly"

 Google and the National Security Agency are engaging in a cooperative investigation to determine who exactly from China was trolling through Google's proprietary networks, including e-mail exchanges of Chinese dissidents. They are also joining together to develop new defenses against malicious intrusion and attacks on America's cyber-infrastructure.

Though America's cyber-vulnerability has long been a concern of the intelligence agencies, the Google episode has catapulted it to a national security priority.

No one knows more about China's cyberwar capacities than Mike McConnell, who was director of National Intelligence, the supreme authority over all U.S. intelligence agencies, from Feb. 2007 to Jan. 2009, and director of the National Security Agency from 1992 to 1996.

After attacks last Spring on the Pentagon and the New York Stock Exchange, I sat down with him to discuss the chief suspect, then also China, and to get the lay of the cyberwar battlefield.

Some defense analysts say that 90 percent of the probes and scans of American defense systems as well as commercial computer networks come from China. So I asked McConnell what he thought about that estimate.

"I don't know if it is 90 percent," McConnell hedged, "but they are determined to be the best. Probably the best in the world in the cyber realm are the United States, then the Russians, the British, the Israelis and the French. The next tier is the Chinese.

"The Chinese," he continued, "are exploiting our systems for information advantage -- looking for the characteristics of a weapons system by a defense contractor or academic research on plasma physics, for example -- not in order to destroy data and do damage. But, for now, I believe they are deterred from destroying data both by the need to export to the U.S. and by the need to maintain a stable currency and stable global markets.

"But what happens if we have a war? A capability for information exploitation could quickly be used for information attack to destroy systems on which the U.S. depends."

Surely, though, I suggested, China is not the only one trolling around for information and probing security vulnerabilities in cyberspace?

"Every nation with advanced technology is exploring options to establish policy and rules for how to use this new capability to wage war. Everyone. All the time," McConnell acknowledged.

China is on the screen now because of Google. But, I asked, what about the terror threat?

"Terrorists groups today are ranked near the bottom of cyberwar capability. Criminal organizations are more sophisticated. There is a hierarchy. You go from nation-states, who can destroy things, to criminals, who can steal things, to aggravating but sophisticated hackers.

"At some point, however, the terrorists will get a couple of graduates from one of the best universities with skills in cyber capabilities.

"Sooner or later, terror groups will achieve cyber-sophistication. It's like nuclear proliferation, only far easier. Once you have the knowledge, you don't have to spend years enriching uranium and testing long-range missiles. It wouldn't take long to obtain a sophisticated attack capability. Unlike nation-states that have an interest in a stable globe with stable markets, the terrorists will not be deterred from damaging our data to achieve their goals." huffingtonpost

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