The information security company Mandiant released a report last week exposing China’s cyber espionage rings. After years of research and investigation into security breeches into companies across the globe, Mandiant concluded that "the groups conducting these activities are based primarily in China and that the Chinese Government is aware of them." While news of China attacking the digital infrastructure of the U.S. government and corporations to pilfer intelligence is nothing new, the thought that hackers have time cards and wear suits is unusual.
Whether it is Kevin Smith from Live Free or Die Hard or Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day, Hollywood tends to depict hackers with the same persona: pocket-protector wearing, Doritos-eating, eccentric, isolated people that live in the their mother’s basement and have a tendency to be anti-social. So the thought of Chinese hackers as professionals that work a standard workweek and enjoy the weekends off with family, like many Americans, is bewildering. However, whether it’s the villain in a Hollywood blockbuster stopped by the tech savvy hero or hackers from China, the end game is all the same: steal information and cause destruction.
The United States is heavily dependent on information technology for defense and military purposes, banking, and transportation as well as to deliver power, fuel and water across the country; therefore, America is highly vulnerable to cyber attacks. According to Shawn Henry of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, "cyber threats are an existential one, meaning that a major cyber attack could potentially wipe out whole companies. It could shut down our electric grid or water supply. It could cause serious damage to parts of our cities, and ultimately even kill people."
China is targeting our most vulnerable points: infrastructure, communication networks, and defense technology. Big guns and large militaries no longer determine a nation-state’s ability to win a war. As the world’s reliance on global commerce and information technology increases, cyber power is the new variable in determining the power of state rather than nuclear arsenals that characterized the Cold War. Beijing is well aware of this fact and knows China cannot compete with the military power of the United States. Cyberspace allows China to easily and repeatedly attack the United States from abroad.
Militaries and their equipment, economies, financial operations and domestic infrastructures can become paralyzed once a nation-state’s digital infrastructure is compromised, rendering an all-powerful military useless. Just like in Live for or Die Hard, China can systematically shut down all of the computer networks, satellites, and defense capabilities of the United States with a few codes and mouse clicks. While China may not be attempting to bring Washington to their knees, cyber attacks are part of every militaries' weapons arsenal. In the event a mishap over Taiwan occurs or U.S. Navy boats in the South China Sea become hostile, leading to conflict, breeching networks and communication systems could neutralize the U.S. military giving China a greater chance of winning a war against the United States.