May 11, 2012: The British Ministry of Defense has admitted, for the first time, that it is under heavy attack by hackers. It was also revealed that some of these attacks had succeeded. The good news is that the military is becoming more aggressive and imaginative in dealing with Cyber War defense. China was not directly accused of being behind any of these attacks but it was mentioned that there are now discussions underway with the Chinese on the matter. All of this is an old problem.
Last year Britain went public to report a higher number of Internet based attacks. The report noted that the emphasis was now on economic assets. This included technology and business plans. For example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was under heavy cyber-attack for several months, apparently in an effort to obtain secret details of government plans and techniques for supporting British exports. Government Internet security officials were making all this public to encourage British firms to increase their Internet security.
All this was nothing new. Two years ago Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5, went public with numerous charges of Chinese Internet based espionage. MI5 accused China of using both agents and hacker software to obtain secrets from specific companies and government organizations. This approach had Chinese personnel approaching specific British businessmen at trade shows and offering gifts, like a thumb drive loaded with hidden hacker software that will load itself on to the victim's PC and seek out valuable information. Internet based attacks, traced back to China, continue to send real looking email that has an attachment containing another of those stealthy hacker programs that seek out secrets, or even quietly take over the user's PC. Three years ago MI-5 sent alerts to major corporations warning them of similar attacks and advising increased security of their data.
The U.S. Department of Defense believes that China has the most powerful Cyber War capabilities on the planet. That means the Chinese can shut down just about any site they target and penetrate most as well. The Department of Defense has come right out and said they believe a series of Internet based network attacks on their computer networks in the last few years came from China. These attacks were quite specific, often directed at named individuals in the Department of Defense and succeeded in stealing large quantities of secret material. In 2007, there were 44,000 such attacks from China and this rose to 55,000 in 2008, and then to over 100,000 last year.
The Department of Defense report also cited similar attacks on European defense and commercial organizations. The Department of Defense has been regularly asking for the authority to respond to these attacks. Not just with more robust defenses but with offensive action. China insists that this is already going on, although they don't provide any details. It's believed that Chinese commercial and government networks, which tend to have weaker defenses than those in the West, are getting hammered by criminal hacking gangs.
The Department of Defense desire to act more aggressively against these Cyber War attacks was rebuffed for a long time because of a reluctance to risk legal and diplomatic blowback from such operations. That has now changed, and it's believed that the Department of Defense has permission to attack but if that order is given it will be a secret directive. Such an operation would eventually be revealed but by then there might be some good news to offset the inevitable criticism. Britain has a tradition of secret permissions to take action in such matters, and that's where the Americans may have gotten advice on how to do it.