The strange thing about being involved in information security is the phenomena of cyber warfare.
After all, what does tinkering with computers have to do with real war? Well it depends what all that tinkering leads to, and we simply do not know what would happen in a real war. We are in the beginning of the era when aggressive hacking supports war.
But probably the overwhelming majority of activities labelled as cyber warfare are in fact espionage, or a grey area in between. Any kind of hacking that leads to information disclosure, is espionage rather than warfare. More aggressive hacking – such as writing malware to spin centrifuges into destruction – falls into the grey area between espionage and warfare; it’s too aggressive to be labelled espionage, but isn’t part of a legal war (and yes there is such a thing). In terms of legality, it could well be that such acts are illegal acts of war, but morally justified.
And why is China always the bad actor here? Practically every hacking conference video dealing with cyber warfare drops big hints about the activities of China with little in the way of evidence. There is some evidence that China may be involved in cyber espionage, but as for cyber warfare itself, there is far more evidence for the involvement of the US, Israel, and even the UK; although the rumoured replacement of an Al-Qaeda recipe for a pipe bomb with one for cupcakes doesn’t seem like an act of war, but perhaps an exhibit of the English sense of humour.
Part of the problem is that anyone who reads their firewall logs will find a huge number of attacks coming from Chinese address space. As an example, a quick inspection of the addresses blocked on one of my servers for attempted ssh brute force attacks gives the following table :-
|51||US||United States …|
This is not intended to be an accurate reflection of anything other than the number of infected machines trying to brute force accounts on my server.
The high presence of China is an indication of the number of malware infections within China, and the large population of the Chinese. It doesn’t actually say anything about where those attacks originate. Every hacker with enough sense to tie up their shoe laces will be pivoting through privacy proxies, and using armies of infected hosts to send out their attacks. These infected hosts are the ones whose addresses show up in your logs.
Assuming that because these addresses are Chinese means that the Chinese state is behind attacks is faulty logic. There is no reason why the Chinese state hackers (if they exist … although it is almost certain they do) would use Chinese addresses to attack from; they are more likely to be using addresses from the US, Europe, South America, etc. If anything, attacks coming from Chinese addresses indicate :-
- Private sector hacking (which is the majority)
- Attacks from state groups other than China.
It may well be that China is engaged in industrial scale cyber espionage; it may also be that what people assume are Chinese attacks are in fact other states. After all cyber espionage is probably one of the cheapest ways to get involved; within the means of even the smallest and poorest states.