China dominates 2012 cybersecurity talking points

From hacking and cyberespionage to its efforts to improve software piracy, the Asian giant was never far from making the news this year.
Written by Ellyne Phneah, Contributor

Asia-Pacific has seen its fair share of IT and online security incidents, from intellectual property theft and cyberespionage to hacktivism, this year. But not all were bad news though, as regional governments took steps to clamp down on online crime by implementing new regulations and setting up cybercrime units.

China, however, hogs the limelight when it comes to security matters in this region, for both good and bad reasons.

The positives this year for the Asian giant is the government's concerted efforts to eradicate software piracy, at least in the public sector, as it spent more than 1 billion yuan (US$156.9 million) buying licensed software for its various agencies. The amount was reportedly spent on 158,823 operating system licenses, 506,693 copies of office software, as well as antivirus and other special-purpose software by end of June.

The Business Software Alliance (BSA) also reported in May the proportion of China's PCs with pirated software fell to 77 percent in 2011--a new record low and a decrease of 15 percentage points from 2003's high of 92 percent.

China versus the world
The negatives, however, continue to dominate headlines. Chinese hackers, for one, have been actively breaching the Web sites and IT systems of other countries. The Indian navy was one victim of such attacks, with its computer systems in and around the city of Visakhaptnam breached and had a bug planted in them which then sent sensitive data to Internet Protocol (IP) addresses in China.

Iranian Offshore Oil Company, Iran's state-owned company, also pointed its finger at China and Israel for initiating a cyberattack on its drilling platforms' computer network. Mohammad Reza Golshani, IT head for the company, said the attempted attack created a one-way connection to the company's network but his team managed to fend off their advances.

International spats were also breeding ground for online dissent, as territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines sparked off a spate of Web attacks.

The National Police Association of Japan confirmed that at least 19 of the country's Web sites, including a government ministry and hospital, were affected by cyberattacks originating from China. It also stated 300 Japanese organizations were listed as possible targets on the message of the Chinese hacker group Honker. Japan and China are currently disputing the ownership of certain islands in the East China Sea.

Hackers from China and Philippines also engaged in a cyberspace standoff in April. Chinese hackers reportedly defaced the Web site of the University of the Philippines by showing the map with Chinese script and highlighting the disputed islands in the South China Sea as the country's property.

Filipino hackers struck back the next day and defaced several Chinese Web sites and similarly proclaiming its sovereignty over the Huangyan and Nansha islands.

These inter-country hackings show how political disputes have spilled over to impact the cyberworld, Vincent Goh, Asia-Pacific vice president of RSA, the security arm of EMC, observed. "This unpredictability and vulnerability in our IT security landscape signifies that organizations in Asia-Pacific must learn to live in a state of compromise," he said.

Cyberespionage fears grow
This sense of wariness was compounded by more cyberespionage activities conducted globally, and epitomized by how Chinese telecom equipment makers Huawei Technology and ZTE have to constantly allay government concerns that their networking products are being used to help the Chinese government spy on others.

The U.S. government has been one of the more vocal critics of the two Chinese companies, going so much as to warn American companies not to do business with them. The European Union and Australia have also stated their concerns.

Beyond Huawei and ZTE, ESET security researchers also discovered a worm believed to have originated from China and targets and steals files running AutoCAD software. This led the security vendor to believe the malware was designed for cyberespionage purposes.

Samsung and LG were embroiled in a corporate espionage case too, with 11 Samsung employees arrested for stealing and leaking the company's organic light-emitting diode (OLED) patents to its rival.

Commenting on the region's espionage activities, Uri Rivner, head of new technologies at RSA, the security arm of EMC, said Asia-Pacific countries are increasingly moving industrial espionage activities online as more people in the region get on the Internet.

Governments fight back with cybercrime laws, agencies
Governments in Asia were not oblivious of the threat cyberattacks pose, though.

Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, for one, warned that greater interconnectivity and access to technology will create a "new reality" in which the country will see more cyberattacks and social extremists.

Ministers in Thailand also said in November the government is ramping up efforts to improve its cybersecurity posture as the risk of being attacked is growing due to the wide use of social media and inadequate security systems.

Myla Pilao, director, of core technology at Trend Micro's TrendLabs, observed that Asia-Pacific countries do acknowledge the problem and have approved initiatives such as setting up of cybercrime units and revising their existing laws to reflect the changing security landscape.

Hong Kong was one that set up its cybersecurity center this year to prevent and detect computer crime by monitoring network traffic and assist critical infrastructure operators in the event of an online attack. The Philippines' National Bureau of Investigation also established a computer crime unit to aid investigators in determining attacks and to take action if citizens violate the country's Cybercrime Act.

The Interpol is also building its Interpol Global Complex in Singapore, which will be operational in 2014. The Complex will boost the city-state's efforts to curb high-tech crime, as well as serve the international community by investing in research and development to enhance areas such as forensics and data capabilities.

Laws need finetuning
Efforts to enact policies to curb cybercrime have not been as smooth-sailing for regional governments.

Philippines' Cybercrime Prevention Act, which was signed into effect by President Benigno Aquino III on Sep. 12, came under fire by many citizens due to its vague definition of online libel, violation of personal rights and tough legal penalties for online defamation. The country's Supreme Court has since suspended the Act for 120 days in October as it decides whether the law violates civil rights.

Singapore's Computer Misuse Act is also currently review after the Ministry of Home Affairs proposed amendments to give the government powers to order preemptive strikes against planned attacks against critical national infrastructure.

Questions have been raised, though, over who will foot the bill if companies have to spend more time and resources providing the information the government is asking for, and whether personal e-mail of senior military and government officials are fair game when investigating cyberattacks.

RSA's Goh warned it will not be easy for governments in Asia to craft the perfect cybercrime legislation since security monitoring and data privacy do not often see eye to eye. It gets even more complex when they have to factor in the different legislative landscape in other countries when a crime is conducted across different jurisdictions, he added.

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