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Is the Cyber Sky Falling on China?

Mar 15 , 2013

Is China using cyber espionage to rummage through America’s government and business interests – places they do not belong?

For some time, Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Michigan), Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a former FBI agent, has been warning that China has been stealing government information and intellectual property from U.S. businesses.

For his efforts, he has been called either a modern day Paul Revere or “Chicken Little”.

“The sky is falling, the sky is falling” is a cry that remains an idiom even today. Is cyber disaster imminent?

What if the crier is right?

This is exactly the dilemma that Congressman Rogers finds himself in as he attempts to alert the country to paying more attention and protecting ourselves against further cyber attack. There is no doubt that cyber attacks can cripple our economy and financial institutions or destroy our power and electrical systems grids — crippling the computer networks that help run our entire country’s infrastructure.

Sounds rather sci-fi, doesn’t it? Complete with enemies able to unleash a computer virus so powerful that it might shut down our country. Scary enough?

Rogers believes that this level of devastation is currently being threatened by terrorist organizations and foreign governments, particularly, China. He believes that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and Al-Qaida daily are improving their capabilities to attack America’s vital targets using cyberspace.

This is not the first time we have experienced cyber-attacks against American companies originating from China. A widely released report from a private security firm in February 2013, found that the Chinese military hacked into more than 140 businesses, mostly in the United States.  The Chinese government strongly denies the claim.

The exponential number of attacks as well as the sophistication and coordination of the attacks has bought the issue to a boiling point in our government.

Congressman Rogers was recently joined at a Congressional Committee by former Michigan Governor John Engler, now President of the U.S. Business Roundtable. Engler believes China is stealing business secrets at an alarming rate. He told the congressional committee that protecting U.S. companies from these threats is a top-level national economic issue that must be addressed.

Rogers is working in overdrive to pass legislation he terms The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. It would allow the U.S. government to share classified information related to expected computer system attacks with American businesses. His idea for early warning systems would help create shields to protect our nation’s security interests.

This new bill was introduced after the original died in the U.S. Senate, failing to be introduced during the last legislative session.

President Barack Obama highlighted the cyber -security issue as a threat to the U.S. in his recent State of the Union address.

In what was described as an unusually direct appeal, The Washington Post reported recently that the Obama administration “called on China to halt its persistent theft of trade secrets from corporate computers and engage in a dialogue to establish norms of behavior in cyberspace.”

The demand marks the Obama administration’s first public effort to hold China accountable for what officials have described as “an extensive, years-long campaign of commercial cyber-espionage.”

When asked which powerful Washington institutions have been penetrated by Chinese cyber spies, U.S. cyber-security experts agree: “Almost all of them”. The list of those hacked includes think tanks, media outlets, law firms, human rights groups, manufacturers, contractors, congressional offices and federal agencies and embassies.

The President’s National Security Adviser, Thomas E. Donilon, called on China to takes steps towards stopping the attacks. As The New York Times reported: “Mr. Donilon said the threats to cyber security had moved to the forefront of its concerns with China, noting that he was not ‘talking about ordinary cybercrime or hacking.’”

Chinese denial

According to The China Daily China’s Ministry of National Defense scorned the accusations as “unprofessional and false” shortly after the report was released. It also said China has never directly accused the U.S. government of being behind similar attacks on China’s computers even though its military computers suffered “a large number” of overseas attacks with “a considerable number” of them originating from the U.S. judging from IP addresses.”

Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman repeated China’s assertion that it is firmly opposed to cyber-attacks and claims China has suffered most from them. “Cyberspace needs rules and cooperation, not wars.” Hua went on to say that “China is willing, on the basis of the principles of mutual respect and mutual trust, to have constructive dialogue and cooperation on this issue with the international community including the United States to maintain the security, openness, and peace of the Internet.”

To paraphrase an old saying– both sides are likely to distrust and verify.

Cyber threats all Too Real

President Obama met with key US business executives in the secure White House Situation Room a day after U.S. intelligence leaders said for the first time that cyber attacks and cyber espionage have supplanted terrorism as the top security threat facing the United States. The meeting included Honeywell International’s David Cote, AT&T’s Randall Stephenson, and Northrop Grumman’s, Wes Bush.

The President did not mince words saying, “What is absolutely true is that we have seen a steady ramping up of cyber security threats ” noting that some threats were “state sponsored.” President Obama continued, “We’ve made it very clear to China and some other state actors that, you know, we expect them to follow international norms and abide by international rules.”

Our national economic interests and security are at risk. While the Chinese take offense at the accusations, our diplomats are walking a tightrope to resolve an issue that has become too big to ignore. Both countries must find a way to navigate the cybersecurity waters before it leads to problems that spin out of control.

It seems imperative for not only China and America, but also all of humanity, that our two great countries must find ways to develop “win-win” strategies. We need to resolve issues like these quickly in order to assure continued peaceful co-existence on the cyber-security and other fronts.

Cyber-security will test both our countries’ leadership. This is a test neither side can afford to fail.

Tom Watkins serves on the Board of Advisors for the University of Michigan’s Confucius Institute as well as on the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s international advisory board. He is the former Michigan State Superintendent of Schools and former President and CEO of the EconomicCouncil in Palm Beach County Florida. Currently, Tom is a U.S./China business and educational consultant.

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