Toronto Star

China and the growth of cyber-espionage


5Some circumstan­tial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” — Henry David Thoreau

For centuries, China has been lending pandas to countries as a goodwill gesture. And the gambit usually works.

On cue, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford have been jockeying for a spot in the photo-op with Laureen Harper when giant pandas Er Shun (“Double Smoothness”) and Da Mao (“Big Mao Tse-Tung”) arrive at Pearson airport this Monday.

It might be unseemly to look a gift giant panda in the mouth.

But here goes: Computer hackers widely thought to be based in China target North American government­s and businesses thousands of times every day.

In 2010, cyberspies thought to be operating from China broke into computers at Canada’s Treasury Board and Finance and Defence Department­s in what Daniel Tobok, a U.S. cyber detective called in to investigat­e the breaches, described as “one of the biggest attacks we have ever seen.” Earlier that year, hackers of suspected Chinese origin attacked several Bay Street law firms in an espionage bid tied to the ultimately failed $38-billion takeover offer for Saskatchew­an’s Potash Corp. by a British firm. Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that, according to an ex-Nortel Networks Corp. employee, Nortel’s computer databases had been systematic­ally plundered by China-based hackers from 2000 to 2009, when Nortel filed for bankruptcy protection. Back in 2010, two U.S. groups examining cyberattac­ks claimed that computers at diplomatic posts and government operations in 103 countries had been cracked by cyberspies working from computer servers in China. And in January, the Virginiaba­sed security firm Mendicant reported that a facility on the outskirts of Shanghai thought to be run by the People’s Liberation Army had stolen trade secrets from more than 140 U.S. companies, including Ford, General Motors, Motorola, Dupont, Dow Chemical and Cargill. The problem has become sufficient­ly acute to vie with America’s efforts, similar to Canada’s, to develop friendlier relations with a China whose markets we seek greater access to and whose potential as a regional military hegemony the U.S. and its allies Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have sought to restrain only by “softpower” diplomatic means. Alluding to China without naming it, U.S. President Barack Obama in his January state of the union address declared that offshore cyberattac­kers “are seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutio­ns and our air traffic control systems.” Last month, Obama unveiled measures to better protect publicand private-sector U.S. computer networks from sabotage and theft of intellectu­al property and military secrets. Any student of the 19th-century Opium Wars will attest that economic empire building — in that case by the British and Americans — is an ugly business. With China emerging as an economic superpower, poised to overtake the U.S. in GDP by mid-century, it wouldn’t surprise any future historian that suspected rampant intellectu­al property theft played an essential role in China’s economic miracle. Which China denies, of course. Last month, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa released a statement saying, “Cyberattac­ks are translatio­nal and anonymous. It is irresponsi­ble to prejudge the origin of attacks without thorough investigat­ion and hard evidence.”

The Chinese have lately gone further, insisting this month that they are the chief victims of hacker theft of military and trade secrets, mostly of U.S. origin. But there’s no hard evidence for that claim, either.

In a cat-and-mouse game where an Internet domain name of two weeks’ existence passes as hard proof, the prepondera­nce of circumstan­tial evidence points to China.

In 2011, McAfee, the U.S. computer security firm, asserted that hackers based in China had stolen trade secrets from western oil companies.

With China emerging as an economic superpower, poised to overtake the U.S. in GDP by mid-century, it wouldn’t surprise any future historian that suspected rampant intellectu­al property theft played an essential role in China’s economic miracle

Classified files held by the U.S. government link several cyberattac­ks to the Chinese army. WikiLeaks has published diplomatic cables linking cyberattac­ks on Google and Intel Corp. to operatives in the Chinese Politburo.

And Mendicant insists that the years of hacking it uncovered could not have happened without the “full knowledge and co-operation” of Beijing, given China’s relentless control of Internet activity.

Yet global security experts don’t suspect the Politburo of a master plan.

Instead, they link cybermalic­e to China’s army, its spy agencies, powerful state-owned enterprise­s, and to Chinese regional military authoritie­s.

Each group keeps the others in the dark about what they’re doing. This, convenient­ly, offers “plausible deniabilit­y” to China’s political leadership.

I’m no less immune to the seductive cuteness of pandas than the next person.

But given the immensity of the 24/7 cyberattac­ks we’re enduring, and China’s intransige­nce on the issue, I’d prefer we made our own gesture — likely the first on record. I’d turn Er Shun and Da Mao back to the only homes they’ve known, in southwest China.

“Gesture politics” has its place, I suppose, but not when economies are at stake.

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