Although actual full-scale acts of cyber-warfare or cyber- are somewhat rare, the recent alleged Chinese hack of a Pentagon email system has brought the issue back into the spotlight. Experts over the past several years have warned that cyber warfare will become ever more common in our increasingly connected world.
The Pentagon confirmed that computer hackers had gained access to an e-mail system in the office of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but declined comment on a report that the Chinese army was responsible. However, The Financial Times and other media outlets cited sources familiar with the Pentagon incident as saying there was a "very high level of confidence ... trending towards total certainty" that the Chinese army was behind it. Not surprisingly, the Chinese government denies any involvement.
The report came a week after Germany raised similar claims that Chinese hackers had infected government ministries with spying programs. Earlier, German media reported that espionage programs traced to the Chinese military had been detected in computer systems at the Chancellors office, the foreign ministry and other government agencies in Berlin. China's Foreign Ministry denied those reports, as well. The allegations were raised again recently between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"We in the Government took (the reports) as a matter of grave concern," Wen said after a meeting with Merkel.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said in Beijing that, "the Chinese government has consistently opposed and vigorously attacked according to the law all Internet-wrecking crimes, including hacking." She added, "Some people are making wild accusations against China ... They are totally groundless and also reflect a Cold War mentality."
In reality, it is widely assumed that both the US and China (as well as other nations) regularly attempt to conduct cyber espionage on each other. In either case, both Beijing and Washington have devoted larger portions of their rising defense budgets to developing more advanced computer capabilities.
It’s no secret that China is striving to overtake the United States as the dominant power in cyberspace, according to a senior American general, Lt Gen Robert Elder. He said cyber warfare is emerging as a new realm of conflict between nation states and is a growing priority for the Pentagon. Earlier in the year, the Pentagon’s annual report on China's military power mentioned that China regarded computer network operations as critical to achieving "electromagnetic dominance" early in a conflict.
Elder points out that China is not alone in looking at ways of hacking into US networks to glean trade and defense secrets, but that China stands out as a potential threat.
"They're the only nation that has been quite that blatant about saying 'we're looking to do that'," said Elder.
Elder will be commanding a new cyber command center being set up at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, home to about 25,000 military personnel involved in everything from electronic warfare to network defense.
The command's focus is to control the "cyber domain", which the Pentagon now sees as critical to everything from communications to surveillance to infrastructure security.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters that while the e-mail system was located in the office of the secretary of defense, the breech was not likely to have gathered any critical information.
"There was no disruption to (defense) operations or adverse impact to ongoing operations that the department was conducting ... all precautionary measures were taken and the system was restored to service," he said.
Even so, the matter was taken very seriously and raised concerns that foreign military hackers may be able to disrupt the US defense department's systems. US officials were quoted as saying that the penetration in June raises concerns to a whole new level, and that we can expect cyber warfare to increase in the future.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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