Patriot games as hackers exchange fire over disputed islands

great wall of chinaThis week we saw more news emerge of the escalating tit-for-tat cyber attacks apparently being launched by actors sympathetic to the Philippines and China over a naval stand-off in the South China Sea.

Scarborough Shoal – also known as Panatag Shoal or Huangyan island – is the region long-disputed by the two countries and things got serious earlier this month after Filipino navy officials tried to arrest Chinese fisherman operating in the area but were stopped by Chinese surveillance boats.

Cue a barrage of cyber attacks on Philippine government and university web sites by apparent Chinese hackers, and then reprisals from the other side.

It’s pretty basic stuff, site defacement and DDoS attacks designed to send a clear message to the other side, and in this kind of thing China is probably a world leader.

Although it will never be revealed exactly how many patriotic hacktivists there are in the People’s Republic, what’s more interesting is their relationship with the government. In all but the most repressive states – think Iran or Syria – governments disassociate themselves from any hacking behaviour, but I learnt recently that China has done the opposite.

It has long been suspected, but China has effectively made a deal with the hacking community, a source told me, which goes thus:

  • Never hack your own government or companies in your own country
  • If you find anything of interest in your hacking activities which could help your country improve its status on the world stage, hand it over.
  • When called upon to help the ‘cyber military’, make sure you respond

The deal is simple, the source explained, follow these rules and you can hack away with impunity. It means attacks of the sort seen this month on the Philippines can be carried out with the covert blessing of the government and the Party.

Of course the PRC’s standard response to these accusations is that it denounces all hacking activities, that it is taking steps to prevent cyber crime and that China itself is as much a victim of such attacks as western countries.

Even if tracking technologies mature to the level where the source of such attacks can be pinpointed, by operating at arm’s length, the government will always have the advantage of plausible deniability. It’s just a case of whether the international community will eventually lose patience with China and demand action, economic superpower or not.

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