High-profile claims against Russia and China this year, accusing them of mounting cyber attacks against Western state computer systems could be the first publicized salvos of a secret cyber war involving many nations.
Twenty years ago, the concept of a country coming under attack not from land, air or sea but via telephone lines and communication systems was seen as science fiction. But today, when gaining access to a government Web site takes just a few mouse clicks, cyber-terrorism is a very real fact.
The alleged Russian attacks on Estonia’s digital infrastructure in the middle of a diplomatic spat over the relocation of a Soviet-era monument in May sent NATO experts to Tallinn to investigate what some called the first direct attack by Moscow on a NATO member. Confusion over whether an attack was actually happening, however, allowed NATO to avoid formulating a response to the suspected cyber attack.
Then Germany joined the United States, France and Britain last month in blaming China for recent hacker attacks on sensitive government sites, including the Pentagon and the French defense ministry.
“I’m sure the Germans and Americans wouldn’t have named China without having evidence,” said Jan Hassel, an expert and author on the subject of cyber-terrorism. “The fact that China was singled out means that the countries apparently targeted by the Chinese wanted to send out a warning.”
Beijing has denied all involvement in the alleged attacks, and the Western governments have been unwilling to publicize exactly what, if any, classified information was compromised.
Badly protected systems vulnerable to attack
“The increasing reliance on technology is making governments more vulnerable to cyber attack,” Hassel said. “Many don’t have adequate defense systems on their files and hackers will look for a weak link, maybe a person, maybe an application and focus on that, releasing viruses to disable the system through emails.”
The Pentagon admitted hackers had gained access to an unclassified e-mail system in the office of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates but would not comment on a Financial Times report that the Chinese government was involved.