China hacking vs. Pentagon whacking: An arms race in cyber-space?

Nile Bowie
Nile Bowie is an independent writer and current affairs commentator based in Singapore. Originally from New York City, he has lived in the Asia-Pacific region for nearly a decade and was previously a columnist with the Malaysian Reserve newspaper, in addition to working actively in non-governmental organisations and creative industries. He can be reached at nilebowie@gmail.com.
China hacking vs. Pentagon whacking: An arms race in cyber-space?
Fresh allegations of hacking and cyber-theft between China and the United States as well as resources channeled into cyber-warfare and digital troops by both superpowers show uncertain diplomatic terrain ahead.

As the Obama administration imposes gouging cuts on fundamental social spending, the White House is allocating $13 billion for the US Cyber Command, tasked with waging ‘offensive cyber strikes’ to defend the homeland. In 'Pentagonese' that translates to building malicious computer viruses designed to subvert disable, and destroy targets and their computer-controlled infrastructure. 

Gen. Keith Alexander, who leads both the Cyber Command and the NSA, even claimed that 13 of the 40 existing cyber battalions are tasked specifically with waging pre-emptive attacks against other countries.

In keeping with the logic of American exceptionalism, which supposes that the US maintain unrivalled supremacy in every tactical or military field, the Pentagon is now working in earnest to extend its dominance to cyberspace. 

It’s no secret that China has made the modernization of its armed forces a top priority. As Beijing develops new types of hardware, including aircraft carriers, strategic missile submarines and advanced aircraft, white papers issued by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) highlight the desire to digitalize the nation’s military by utilizing modern information technology. 

Washington is no stranger to scare tactics, and as establishment figures routinely warn of America’s power grids and financial systems being overtaken by e-terrorists, the US is positioning itself to enact that same scenario onto others under the guise of national defense.

While the US gives itself the space to pre-emptively cyber-strike others with impunity, the Pentagon says that any computer-based attacks and hacking from foreign countries can be considered acts of war, which could merit a ’use of force’ retaliation. 

The US Cyber Command is part of a worldwide offensive cyber warfare system that includes all branches of the US military, in addition to our friends in NATO – its chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, even went as far as saying that he wants to “extend the definition of attacks which trigger activation of the alliance to include cyber attacks.” While the US devises ways to warmonger through programming code, President Obama provocatively phoned Chinese President Xi Jinping immediately after his inauguration in March to demand that Beijing stop hacking, a charge China vehemently denies. Obama’s national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, also called out China by name during a speech, lamenting how “the international community cannot tolerate such activity from any country.” (Except the United States, obviously.)

Crying foul over China

The Obama administration accuses Chinese hackers of waging cyber-attacks on a number of US entities, including billion-dollar corporations and governmental departments, and Beijing has recently been charged with stealing blueprints for combat aircraft as such the F/A-18 fighter jet and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, in addition to specs on naval vessels and missile defense systems. 

Three F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (Reuters / Lockheed Martin / Darin Russell / Handout)

The Chinese Defense Ministry dismissed the accusations as ridiculous, saying that the US underestimates the intelligence of the Chinese people and their capacity to develop tactically competitive military technology

US security experts also previously claimed that a 12-story office building on the outskirts of Shanghai was the headquarters of an elusive squadron of the PLA operating under the name Unit 61398, tasked with attacking international computer networks and engaging in espionage.

Beijing claims that findings lack technical proof, because the report relied solely on suspicious IP addresses that originate in China, which the Defense Ministry suggests can be easily usurped by hackers outside of China. In truth, there is a glaring absence of any cyber-smoking gun that definitively corroborates US claims. However, it remains highly plausible that Beijing would have an interest in obtaining the intimate tech-specs of Washington’s military hardware to reverse engineer it and build more reliable defensive mechanisms for itself. After all, China is being encircled by a pivoting military power that has waged aggressive wars outside of international law – any Beijing-backed espionage seen through this perspective becomes understandable. Ironically enough, the Chinese embassy in Washington claims it is a victim of computer hacking that originates in the United States.

Let’s ask the Iranians

Its common knowledge that Israel and the United States engineered the Stuxnet virus that sabotaged Iran’s nuclear facility in Natanz, it was even claimed by people close to the matter that it was President Obama’s personal directive. Stuxnet remains the most sophisticated malware discovered thus far, the virus targets industrial systems such as nuclear power plants and electrical grids from a Microsoft Windows-based PC. The virus exploits security gaps referred to as zero-day vulnerabilities to attack specific targets; the Pentagon reportedly pays top dollar to get its hands on such programming vulnerabilities, which are the essential ingredient in any cyber-weapon. 

An aerial view of the Pentagon building in Washington (Reuters / Jason Reed JIR / CN)

Upon delivery of the Stuxnet payload via USB, the malicious malware manipulated the operating speed of centrifuges spinning nuclear fuel to create distortions that deliberately damaged the machines, while disabling emergency controls. Stuxnet took out nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 centrifuges spinning uranium at the facility, while numerous Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated.  

Even after acts of overt hostility and open sabotage, Iran’s response has been completely muted. If the shoe was on the other foot, could the United States ever exercise the same restraint? By the Pentagon’s definition, it would have the legal right to retaliate with force if ever found itself on the receiving end of a Stuxnet-type virus. 

When asked about the Stuxnet worm in a press conference, former White House WMD Coordinator Gary Samore boasted, “I’m glad to hear they are having troubles with their centrifuge machines, and the US and its allies are doing everything we can to make it more complicated.” Never in any of the detailed exposés published in the New York Times and elsewhere on the Stuxnet episode, is there any moral or legal questioning of Washington and Tel Aviv’s blatantly illegal tactics; mainstream reports on the subject read more like White House press statements than anything that resembles journalism.

Who’s hacking who?

Congress claims that poor internet security has surpassed terrorism to become the single greatest threat to the homeland, and ironically, US tax dollars are flowing to skilled hackers affiliated with criminal groups who supply government agencies with vulnerabilities in existing software programs. Because these vulnerabilities are the main components of cyber-weapons, security holes in widely used software remain unrepaired. Reuters has even suggested that Washington is “encouraging hacking and failing to disclose to software companies and customers the vulnerabilities exploited by the purchased hacks.” 

Despite the posturing and scare tactics, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that there was only a “remote chance” of a serious cyber-attack on the US. Clapper also spoke about how cyber-theft directly threatened “America’s economic competitiveness and innovation edge,” suggesting that the US Cyber Command serves a dual economic purpose.

Washington’s Cyber Command takes a two-prong approach: it’s tasked with churning out malicious cyber-weapons like Stuxnet while stringently guarding the intellectual property and data of major US corporations. Claims of China being involved in hacking and cyber-theft should not be dismissed off the bat, but if Beijing is indeed stealing military secrets from the US, it is likely motivated by genuine defensive concerns and its own IT sovereignty. Just as Washington partners itself with questionable figures and organizations to execute its foreign policy objectives, the Pentagon’s warm embrace of hackers is bound to create some form of e-blowback in due time. This much is clear – Cyber-Imperialism is the highest stage of Capitalism – somebody pass Lenin the memo.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.