A new kind of fire(wall)crackers?

China prides itself on having invented 4 major “technologies”: the compass, papermaking, printing and gunpowder. The latter is thought to have given birth to firecrackers, which in the recent weeks seem to have been extended to firewall crackers.

Germany, the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand have all reported Chinese cyber attacks on government departments during the last fortnight. None of these countries, of course, officially pin-pointed the attacks to Beijing, attributing them rather vaguely to Chinese hacking groups. On his side, the Chinese government has pledged “forceful measures” to combat international computer hacking.

Amid all this smoke, how serious and surprising are these attacks? For Washington, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has “demonstrated the ability to conduct attacks that disable US systems…and the ability in a conflict situation to re-enter and disrupt on a very large scale”. The most plausible theories on why the Chinese authorities might choose to foster patriotic hacking are either to test its potential as a weapon or simply to send a signal to other great powers that they have the capability to do so. The Chinese army is not alone either: most countries have developed alternative capacities in parallel to their more conventional forces of destruction – some analysts suggest as many as 120 countries are actively pursuing cyber warfare. In fact, the threat of state-sponsored hacking has dominated the thoughts of security officials around the world for a long time.

“Chinese-made” cyber warfare is nothing new: the PLA actually theorised its use from the mid 1980s. It is believed to have developed its cyber warfare capacity in order to paralyze Taiwan in case a conflict breaks out between both countries. China also published a white paper in which “informationized armed forces” are one of the three pillars of its military strategy, setting itself the target of building a cyber army which could win such a war by 2050. Put differently, China sees little difference between asymmetric warfare and conventional warfare.

In our era of knowledge economy where most wars are waged in markets rather than battlefields, couldn’t multinationals and research labs be the next targets?