On Point: Cyber-Vulnerabilities: American Grid, Chinese Grip

by Austin Bay
March 23, 2010

The U.S. fears for its grid; China'scommunist government worries about its grip.

That is the strategic insight gleanedfrom the fracas over Chinese engineering student Wang Jianwei's article titled"Cascade-Based Attack Vulnerability on the U.S. Power Grid."

Wang's study appeared last year in theSafety Science journal and has been online since spring 2009. Its abstract'sfirst sentence reads: "The vulnerability of real-life networks subject tointentional attacks has been one of the outstanding challenges in the study ofthe network safety."

Wang, a student at China's elite DalianUniversity of Technology, addressed known power-grid weaknesses and ways toattack them. Wang claims he wants to reduce grid vulnerabilities and thepublished paper is an alert.

Several U.S. defense analysts who readthe paper, among them Larry Wortzel, were not so sanguine. In testimony onMarch 10 to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Wortzel mentioned Wang's paperin passing, but suggested it served as a template for an attack on the entireU.S. power grid.

U.S. media sensationalists presentedWortzel as a fretful alarmist. Context matters -- computers controlling powergrid operations have been attacked by hackers. Wortzel is a retired U.S. Armycolonel, an intelligence officer and a specialist in Chinese affairs, andserved as U.S. military attache in China. Wang sees his job as demonstratinggrid vulnerabilities; Wortzel is in the business of assessing political,economic and military threats, capabilities and intentions.

Wortzel's entire testimony, however,provided extensive background on U.S. cyber-defense concerns regarding China.After discussing China's high-profile cyber-intrusions on Google's gmailaccounts and attempts to steal Google source code, Wortzel identified threetypes of "malicious Chinese computer network operations": (1)operations that solidify "political and economic control in China";(2) spy ops gathering "economic, military or technology intelligence"data; (3) cyber reconnaissance of "U.S. military, government, civilinfrastructure or corporate networks for later exploitation or attack."

Conceding he could not prove his assessments"beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law," he said he believed"such persistent, systematic and sophisticated attacks ... most likely arestate-directed." He noted that Chinese dissident organizations like FalunGong have been "singled out by the Chinese Communist Party leadership forsuppression. It is the organs of control and repression in China that need thetype of information that was extracted from Google and who most profit fromsuch penetrations."

Which leads to China's cyber-struggles.Beijing complains that the U.S. has extraordinary cyber-warfare capabilities,and it does. China's worries, however, go well beyond protecting militarysecrets and electrical grids: FREE information, disseminated by unfettereddigital media on the Internet, threatens political control by communist elites.

China may have weathered the globalrecession, but if it has, Beijing regards its success as tentative, for evenslow economic growth threatens the communist elites' deal with the Chinesepeople: We will let you get wealthy, just don't question the politicalstructure. Beijing knows this.

Fear of losing its grip on dissidentsduring a period of economic stress played a role in China's Januarycyber-attack on Google's email service for Chinese clients. Google beganChinese operations in 2006 and admits it censored Chinese Internet searchresults. What an ugly side-story: A liberal California company that makesbillions of dollars in the digital free information regimen (that ultimatelyowes its existence to the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment) acceded to thecensorship demands of authoritarians. At least Google now says no more.

This week, Google left China for HongKong. But isn't Hong Kong in China? At the moment, Beijing still respects its"One China, Two Systems." Hong Kong makes money -- its Basic Law,which protects free information, is one reason.

Two political systems, but for Beijing,one firewall. Bloomberg News reported that on March 23 Internet searches for"Tiananmen" (1989 Tianamen Square massacre) "on computers inShanghai and Beijing could not be displayed, suggesting the (Beijing)government had started limiting access."

Free, wealth-generating economies needfree information. China's communist elites, however, can't yet risk it. 

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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