If you can’t innovate, steal.
That’s likely the rationale behind years of Chinese cyberattacks against U.S. companies in such fields as aerospace, satellite and telecommunications, information technology and scientific research.
A private U.S. technology security firm, Mandiant Corp., announced earlier this week that it has linked a massive cyberattack campaign to the Chinese military (China steadfastly denies any role). Mandiant says that 141 companies and governmental agencies were targeted, 115 of them in the United States, by such entertainingly named hackers as Ugly Gorilla, Dota and SuperHard.
All of the hackers seem to operate out of one place – a Shanghai office building operated by the People’s Liberation Army cyber-command unit. Among the unnamed companies whose security has been breached are military contractors and ones with responsibility for parts of the U.S. power grid, water supply, and oil and gas pipelines.
Who knows how many trade secrets and other proprietary information have been stolen? The cost to U.S. business has been estimated as high as $1 trillion.
The more serious question, of course, is whether the cyberattackers have darker intentions. In October, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned that intruders might be able to derail trains, contaminate water and initiate widespread blackouts. The nation’s financial system could be disrupted. “This is a pre-9/11 moment,” he said. “The attackers are plotting.”
The U.S. government didn’t need Mandiant to tell it about China’s involvement in cyberspying, and it has taken some action. The Pentagon is expanding its Cyber Command to defend against intrusions and wage counterattacks, if necessary. President Obama recently issued an executive order to enhance cybersecurity for critical infrastructure.
But the extent of the cyberattacks on vital industries indicates that more decisive action is needed at the highest diplomatic levels. The nation must take stronger steps to protect American companies and agencies from attack, be it from China – which at least has a stake in the U.S. economy not collapsing – or from other countries like Iran that don’t.