Straight Talk
SIMON KENT - No computers are safe from hackers

Credits: SHUTTERSTOCK

SIMON KENT | QMI AGENCY

George Orwell famously wrote that sport is war minus the shooting.

Well, maybe.

Now consider another form of war without the shooting that equally threatens global security.
China’s organized, targeted and successful (so far) campaign of digitally stalking those it perceives as enemies — or possible benefactors.

Witness the recent massive cyber-attack on The New York Times. It joined the United Nations, NASA, Apple, Facebook, the International Olympic Committee and dozens of other U.S. companies and entities to have suffered the same fate.

On the available evidence it appears China’s military is responsible.
U.S. computer security company Mandiant published a 75-page report Tuesday revealing the Shanghai-based People’s Liberation Army (Unit 61398) is driving computer industrial espionage against an array of international targets.

“The nature of ‘Unit 61398’s’ work is considered by China to be a state secret; however, we believe it engages in harmful ‘Computer Network Operations,’” said Mandiant. “It is time to acknowledge the threat is originating in China, and we wanted to do our part to arm and prepare security professionals to combat that threat effectively.”

According to Mandiant, Unit 61398 — considered a secretive military unit in Shanghai’s Pudong district — has stolen “hundreds” of terabytes of data from 141 organizations since about 2006 in its endless quest for the secrets to achieving industrial parity with the West.

Prof. Tim W. Richardson, of the University of Toronto, says this type of intelligence is just as important to China’s national interest as military secrets.

“Finding out what the next move for Apple is may be worth tens of thousands of jobs to a Chinese company,” Richardson said. “Don’t forget, in China there is no break between military, commercial and state interests. They are all interlinked.”

They are also crucial to the survival of a country with few allies on the world stage. Cynics would even go so far as to say China has no allies at all, just client states like Myanmar, Zimbabwe and North Korea.

None of these countries is known as a hotbed of innovation. Rather, they are agrarian economies with strictly controlled state industries run for the benefit of the organizers not the people.

This isolation means China is excluded from networks like the world’s most exclusive security club that includes Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The group is known simply as the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network.

Lacking insights at a day-to-day commercial and military level means a corresponding lack of innovation and sharing of technology, so China is forced to try less savory means to keep up with its international betters.

Like hacking their computers.

U.S. President Barack Obama said as much in his recent state of the union address. He warned: “Our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, our air-traffic control systems.

“We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing.”

Which begs the question: If major organizations can be so vulnerable, what chance does the average Canadian business have of keeping their computers beyond reach of those seeking to mine information?

“None really,” said Victor Beitner, of Cyber Security Canada. “The FBI’s own estimation is that 100% of computers are hacked within 15 minutes of going online.

“That applies to all levels and right down to the personal. I have dealt with everything from accounting firms that have had their entire hard drive scooped clean by remote attack to a charity that suffered the same.”

Frighteningly for Canadian businesses, these are the cases we know about. Many companies never go public after they have been hacked because of the embarrassment at admitting the failure of their security.

“Still more just never even know it has even happened,” Beitner concluded.

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