It sounds like a nightmare scenario, but yes, there is a war going on between China and the USA. Chinese military strategists understood that this would be an important aspect in the future of international warfare as long ago as 1996, and more recently Major General Wang Pufeng of the Chinese military said that it was their opinion that, "In the near future, information warfare will control the form and future of war."
China has a massive military force, but moving it overseas would be a logistical nightmare; so why bother when you can muster 300 million Internet users to attack the other country's vital technological system and stop them in their tracks?
The Chinese operation started with them trying to hack into the Pentagon's internal communications, but is now much more sophisticated. In moves which make the recent 'cyber wars' between Russia and Estonia, and Arab and Israel look puny, the Chinese have used 'botnets' to infest its other countries' computers with viruses - making them continuously re-send useless information to each other, and rapidly clogging the system and bringing it to a standstill.
These tactics aren't just used against the opposing military; Russian servers were used to attack Estonia's press websites, banking system and Internet service providers. There was a real possibility of the country grinding to a halt. Why bother about conventional warfare when you bring another nation to its knees electronically, without a shot being fired.
Aviram Jenik, the CEO of Beyond Security, was one of the experts in countering this sort of cyber warfare called in by the Estonian authorities to help fight off the assault. As Aviram says, 'It took us several days to get to the bottom of the problem, but the attack began to fade once we started to fight back. In the meantime it cost Estonia billions of euros.'
In recent days the British press has carried stories about the Chinese attacking the technological infrastructure of a total of 103 countries, with the USA being - unsurprisingly - its prime target. As Aviram says, this sort of warfare makes sense for an attacker - for several reasons: 'It's a form of 'clean warfare' which doesn't damage the essential infrastructure; it's very fast and easily reversed; it's very cheap, especially compared with conventional warfare; and, incredibly, it's deniable - the Chinese are blaming Tibetan activists abroad for the current attacks.
So what, if anything, can be done? 'Specialist companies such as Beyond Security can find and help eliminate the weak links that let attackers successfully compromise web sites and communications links', Aviram says, 'But democracies can't order organizations to comply, so there could always be a gap in the defenses, giving an unfriendly power a way in.
'There are measures which can be taken, but they are complex, and there is certainly no single solution; no 'silver bullet'.
'We have to think strategically. First, we have to be aware of the problem, and appreciate the damage which can be done. Second, we must be aware of the potential scope of these attacks; for example, there are dormant 'time bombs' which can be secreted in systems, and are then triggered by date or by event - and we would have no knowledge of them until it's too late.
'Third, we must have a CERT - a Computer Emergency Response Team - in place, as some countries have already. And last, we must be constantly testing our digital defenses. It can be done and it must be done. Countries unfriendly to our own are already attacking us, and to do nothing would be to court Armageddon.'
About Beyond Security
Beyond Security, a privately-held company, develops leading vulnerability assessment and self-management solutions that facilitate preemptive, real-time and continuous network, server, database and application security. The company was founded in 1999 by the founders of SecuriTeam portal (www.securiteam.com), a leading source for vulnerability alerts and solutions serving 1.5 million monthly page views to IT security professionals. Beyond Security's founders are great believers in automation, which is why the company sells tools instead of using them to provide services. Beyond Security's goal is to decrease the number of security holes in products to manageable levels and empower software vendors to release secure products. For more information, visit www.beyondsecurity.com.