Friday, November 13, 2009

China, is it our cyber defense red herring?

There are thousands of articles perpetuating the claim that China is out to get us on the Internet. And yet, all these discussions are begging the question, is it China attacking? Also, are they even the "usual suspects"?

While I can point to real facts of China making active use of information warfare, cyber warfare, or whatever else you choose to call it (such as the release of 0 days being patched by Microsoft
and originally reported by the Taiwanese government, search Microsoft's site), I can also point to Germany (intelligence Trojan horse), the US (The Farewell Dossier) and other countries such
as North Korea (without much detail, so questioned).

We have a failing, that even as experts we see an IP source in China for an attack, and as it is popular, and we are still used to think in the physical world, jump to the conclusion the actor is from China. The actor is often from the US, Eastern Europe, Russia, Brazil, and many other countries. That in turn does not mean these actors are then sponsored by these countries. Information warfare is about covertness, not about being loud. The Internet is perfect for plausible deniability, as I've learned when writing the postmortem analysis of the 2007 attacks against Estonia, for the Estonian CERT.

The Chinese know more about the uses of being covert than any of the rest of us, in their strategy, their actions, and their history. If they are being so indiscreet it is for a specific reason, perhaps as a smoke-screen, or indeed, they are not doing it to begin with.

I am not saying the Chinese government does not attack, I am saying naming them continually is nothing but a baseless red herring, and an easy scape-goat we have all grown used to. Thus, blaming China by itself has become acceptable just because people did it often enough. The story of Ethos manufacturing itself.

Malicious computers in China are a problem we can't and shouldn't deny. However, continually claiming China is the Big Bad and attributing every attack to them, is beyond ridiculous. Nothing to see here, move along.

Then again, maybe if we keep saying it's the Chinese with every attack we see, they will get some ideas and make it true for us. It may eventually prove true, but our current proof is based mainly on people claiming it in the past. We are better than this.

Gadi Evron,

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stiennon said...

I agree Gadi that it is important to seek good (maybe not complete) attribution before pointing a finger at China. Yet China *is* the Big Bad. Their government consistently persecutes detractors, bends Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! to their censorial ways, blusters its missiles and war ships at Taiwan, and subjugates the peaceful people of occupied Tibet. Why not look to evil when evil evidences?

With a standing army of 3.4 million, massive investment in nuclear warheads (mysteriously exact copies of the W-88) and an aggressive foreign policy China is a threat to the stability and harmony of the world.

Does China engage in espionage? Of course. In situ spies have been apprehended at Motorola, major US Research Labs, and most recently Ford Motor.

Could Russian, Israeli, British or French cyber covert operations use China's vulnerable home PC's to spy on the US? Of course. (That might not be wise because you run the risk that China's operatives could piggy back on your sleuthing.)

You are right to point out the issue with attribution. The next step is to set up response teams that can do the sort of investigations that SecDev did in their GhostNet report. Unfortunately, only a government spy agency can do that without fear of arrest and we will never see those reports!

Gadi Evron said...

GhostNet was very interesting and good research was done. However, the attribution part was very lacking, jumped steps and reached too far when pointing at China.

It was just yet another spear phishing operation.

China may be active in everything they are accused of, but that doesn't mean we as professionals can point at them just because it's convinient for us.