Experts question US vs China 'cyberwar'

Real cyberwar or just a slanging match between Chinese and US script-kiddies?
Written by Will Knight, Contributor

Real cyberwar or just a slanging match between Chinese and US script-kiddies?

While hostilities between American and Chinese Web site crackers looks likely to hot up in coming days, some security experts are questioning whether the so-called "cyberwar" has been blown out of proportion.

After attacks by Chinese cracking groups on a number of US sites at the start of this week, US crackers have fought back with strikes on scores of Chinese sites resulting in extensive media coverage of the conflict.

Both government and commercial Web sites in China and the US have been dragged into the spat. This week, defacements by both sides have become more and more frequent and one Chinese group, known as the Honkers' Alliance, has even promised to target 1,000 US-based Web sites in the next couple of days, according to some reports.

While all these defacements have grabbed the media spotlight, some computer security experts say that it is little worse than petty name-calling.

Security consultant for Information Risk Management (IRM), Richard Stagg, says that the defacements are less likely to be the work of political activists than kids with too much time on their hands. He suggests that the recent spate of pseudo-political attacks simply demonstrates the trend to associate computer defacements with a political standpoint. "The reason it is happening is that the media has said there is going to be a big war. These are script kiddies looking for attention. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy," he says.

According to Stagg, information warfare might be a reality within the military, but couldn't be further removed from this activity. "Real computer warfare is beyond the ability of most of these so-called hacktivists," he says.

A German computer security consultant, who uses the nickname Tribunal and maintains an extensive list of all sites defaced by crackers, says that the number of defacements is most likely to increase out of school time. "It's getting to the weekend and this is when these kids have to most time," he says. According to this expert, defacements have also spread to an increasingly broad array of sites this week. "At first we thought they'd just hit government sites," he says. But, he says, these hackers rarely even have a genuine political motive. "Now they're hitting anything they can," he adds.

This is not the first international incident that has caused computer crackers to adopt a political attitude. Conflict in the Middle East last year prompted crackers to post pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian messages across Web sites around the world.

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