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Think Tank

The Cyberspace Conundrum

China and Russia made the news recently for their relentless cyberattacks on US cyber systems. Earlier this month, viruses originating from these countries are blamed for the theft of personal banking information belonging to students and faculty members at the City College of San Francisco.

Cyber security is posing a major threat to global stability, according to the 2012 Global Risks report. The subject will be on the agenda for the annual World Economic Forum meeting held in Davos later this week. Stories of cyberattacks from China underscore the need for world and business leaders to create solutions that protect sensitive information ranging from personal data to military intelligence.

"Online security is a public good," according to the report. "And new mechanisms are urgently required to secure private investment in exploring existing system vulnerabilities before they can be exploited."

There are several factors that prevent the US from strong-arming China into compliance, according to Adam Segal, counterterrorism and national security expert at the Council of Foreign Relations. Issues pertaining to trade deficits and nuclear proliferation with China's allies trumps concerns about cyber security. Also, the US' is not blameless when it comes to cyberattacks and this complicates the ability to police or dictate what China does. Chinese sources claim that 15 percent of cyberattacks in China originate from US IP addresses, according to Segal.

"When it comes to espionage, everyone does it." said Segal. "You have to assume the United States is hacking into Chinese networks as well."

Calling China out also means the US has to reveal its technical capabilities and this makes them even more vulnerable to hackers, according to Segal.

The cyberattacks wage on and still China is at no risk of losing its economic foothold in US markets, said Segal. Their offenses, however, does not bode well for their image.

"This is having an effect on their public relations image with the rest of the world," said Segal. "It's not just the United States that is complaining about it. It's also India, Japan and the EU."

What are hackers looking for and what is the United States government doing about cyberattacks originating from China? Who specifically in China is attacking US cyber systems? How cooperative are China's leaders when it comes to helping the US mitigate the problem? Since the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense and private companies are responsible for their own cyber security, are their any metrics in place to measure the success of their efforts? Chinese internet users frequently employ circumvention software to get around Chinese firewalls and censorship. Some of the software was developed and trafficked into China by Americans. Can it be argued that the US is breaking their rules too? China's government, along with several other closed societies, authored the International Code of Conduct for Information Security and presented it to the 66th UN General Assembly in September last year. It basically asked for sovereignty and freedom to police their own internet without international intervention. Do you think the UN is the right entity to dictate international rules on cyberspace?

Photo courtesy of Don Hankins, Flickr

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