South China Sea: another cyber skirmish to worry about

south china sea mapI seem to have chosen the wrong time to come back from Hong Kong. Just a fortnight after landing back in Blighty, the US raised the stakes between the two superpowers, and mortally offended China’s honour, by indicting five PLA soldiers on charges of hacking US firms for economic gain.

I’ve written enough about it here and here already, so I won’t go into the pros and cons of this high risk strategy again. Safe to say that Beijing already appears to be retaliating in the most effective way possible; by making things decidedly difficult for US tech firms in the Middle Kingdom. Already reports have emerged that Cisco and IBM could be in trouble.

Is a new Cold War about to begin?

Well, if it does, one company it might be worth keeping an eye on is threat intelligence firm Cyber Squared. The firm’s ThreatConnect Intelligence Research Team has an interesting and very thorough analysis of new APT-style cyber attack campaigns in the disputed South China Sea (SCS) region, as I wrote about here.

“What’s that got to do with us?” you might ask. Well, potentially quite a lot, according to Cyber Squared chief intelligence officer, Rich Barger.

“There is a risk of increased data loss for Western firms that routinely work with Vietnamese, Filipino, and other SCS region companies,” he told me. “Unit 61398/APT1 operates on the whim of the PRC, and cyber espionage has been adopted as the preeminent ‘low risk – high payoff’ medium for strategic intelligence collection.

“We typically see companies that are infrastructure related being targeted. Industries such as energy, oil & gas, mining, and transportation may find themselves directly or indirectly impacted.”

The message is loud and clear; if you have any military, economic or geopolitical stake in the SCS region, be aware that Chinese cyber operatives are increasing their activity.

“China has had a long standing national and regional interest within the South China Seas region,” explained Barger.

“It offers them a strategic economic advantage in terms of regional and global energy development and trade. From a military perspective, a strong Chinese presence within the SCS also counters the US pivot to South East Asia where China’s military modernisation, especially its navy, and regional assertiveness have come to an intersection.”

Barger argued that the various disparate groups at risk in the SCS need to start sharing information on attacks and “observing both the technical picture and the geo-political context”.

“It is important for those within these targeted industries to actively invest in threat intelligence processes as a standard business practice that supports internal information security operations,” he concluded.

“It is equally important that technical leaders effectively interpret and articulate regional threats and the context surrounding them to corporate business leaders.”


Intel and Malaysia: 41 years, $4 billion

intel penangSpent a fascinating day at Intel’s Penang facility a week ago today with The Register. Up until now it’s been something of a hidden gem for Chipzilla but, as the largest plant outside of the US, it’s a key part of its Asia and global operations.

So exactly why is it such a big deal for Intel? Well it was its first ever foray outside the US some 40-odd years ago and now employs over 6,000 designers and engineers. Crucially it acts as a hub for Intel’s other plants across Asia, providing training and support for engineers from newer facilities in Chengdu, Bangalore and most recently Vietnam.

As if any more proof were needed of its importance to Intel, the firm’s global VP of the Technology and Manufacturing Group, Robin Martin, is based there.

We learned that having everything from product development and design to testing and manufacturing on one site means the firm can respond much quicker to changing market demands and keep up with faster development cycles demanded by today’s mobile computing trends.

Perhaps an even more interesting story, though, is the emergence of Malaysia and Penang as an IT destination during the past 40 years. I spoke to Datuk Noharuddin Nordin, CEO of MIDA, the government’s investment and development agency, who admitted that the reason Intel was lured to the country in the early ‘70s was purely based on cost.

However, the government has taken that early investment and managed to grow it, attracting more big electronics MNCs with skilled labour, solid IPR protection and cheap land.

“We must remember MNCs come here because they want the greatest margins,” he said. “We have to anticipate what’s round the corner and create systems which will help to prepare for that.”

It’s not done a bad job. Intel on its own has invested $4bn in Malaysia over the past 40 years and other big names including Motorola, AMD, Western Digital, Renesas, Bosch and many more have all joined Chipzilla in Penang. Nordin claimed such investment has managed to help to move local firms up the value chain, nurture world class IT talent in Malaysia’s universities and attract MNCs from other related industries like aerospace, medical equipment and automotive.

As we walked through the old colonial streets of Georgetown that evening I couldn’t help but think Penang has come a long way since its days as a British East India Company trading port.

Whether it can continue to lead in the future remains to be seen, with hugely ambitious Asian rivals like China coming up fast. However, alongside Taiwan, Malaysia has something of a first mover advantage in Southeast Asia which will be hard to match in the near-term.