June 6, 2011. Washington. Over the weekend, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates answered the question nobody dared to ask – Would the US launch military attacks on China in response to Chinese cyber attacks? His answer – yes, if the cyber attacks were perceived as acts of war.
That clarification ratchets US-China tensions up a notch after recent heated words between the two international super-powers. Historically, US-China relations in cyberspace have been tense since 2001. That was the year the battleground shifted from military technology to information technology.
In April of 2001, tech-sector and hacker publications began publishing articles with titles that screamed, ‘Cyber-War’. The articles described preparations being made by armies of technology and internet wizards in both China and the US. While still striving for control of outer space, both sides were now rushing to launch the first salvo in the new war for control of mankind’s digital space.
Chinese hackers struck first in 2001 with attacks on the US Air Force, the Dept of Energy, the Labor Dept and the Dept of Health and Human Services. US hackers responded by sabotaging 15 Chinese websites. That was ten years ago however, when both sides were simply testing their weapons and the attacks were more humorous and embarrassing than destructive or deadly.
After 9/11, Americans took their eyes off the cyber ball. The attacks and the ensuing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq monopolized their attention. While that was going on, the hacking communities in both the US and China continued honing their skills and carrying out pesky attacks and data thefts on each other, with little notice.
Over President Obama’s first three years in office however, cyber attacks have become more regular, as well as more damaging. Last week, an underground American hacker organization leaked the passwords of almost 200 people who work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the US Army and employees of major US communications companies.
The escalating events culminated last week when Google announced it had foiled a foreign cyber attack targeting Chinese human rights activists, US government officials and even US media representatives. They claim to have traced the attacks back to Jinan, China. Jinan is the city Google claims its servers were attacked from a year and a half ago.
China immediately responded on Friday by accusing the United States government of carrying out cyber attacks in what it called an “internet war”. China gave the recent pro-democracy revolutions occurring throughout the Middle East as the most recent examples of US meddling and provocation. They also had some harsh word for Google. A warning appeared in the Chinese paper the People’s Daily, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.
The paper warned Google that if it continued to “become overly embroiled in international political struggle, playing the role of a tool for political contention, it may become sacrificed to politics and will be spurned by the marketplace”. The paper accused Google of “deliberately pandering to negative Western perceptions of China and strongly hinting that the hacking attacks were the work of the Chinese government”. They also insisted, “Google's accusations aimed at China are spurious, have ulterior motives, and bear malign intentions”.
The US wasted no time responding to the Chinese use of the word ‘war’ in their official and unofficial statements. Over the weekend, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had his own warning for the leaders of China and its hacking community. Gates warned that Washington was prepared to use force against cyber attacks it considers ‘acts of war’. The Defense Secretary didn’t elaborate on what kinds of attacks would be considered acts of war.