US government debates action over alleged Chinese cyberattacks

Following a string of cyberattacks allegedly related to China, the U.S. government is debating whether action is required.
Written by Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer

The Obama administration is considering further action after high-level talks with Chinese officials over cyberattacks against America failed.

The Associated Press reports that two former U.S. officials say the administration is currently preparing a new National Intelligence Estimate -- a governmental assessment of concerns relating to security -- in order to better understand and analyze the persistency of cyberattacks against America which come from China.

Once this is complete, it will be possible to better address the security threat, as well as justify actions to defend both the general public and national security.

The new National Intelligence Estimate will address cyberattacks as a threat to the economy -- often seen when you consider not only the problems caused by downtime, but also in relation to the money organizations and businesses have to spend in order to defend against and repair the damage left by cyberattackers.

One U.S. official said that it will "cite more directly a role by the Chinese government in such espionage," according to the news agency.

In addition, the report is expected to address ways to pave the way for diplomatic and trade measures against the government unless the situation is placed under control. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said this week:

"We have to begin making it clear to the Chinese that the United States is going to have to take action to protect not only our government's, but our private sector, from this kind of illegal intrusions."

If cyberthreats are not tackled worldwide, Clinton said that the U.S. government is working on measures of their own. Although nothing is set in stone, it is possible measures including the cancellation of specific visas or restrictions on importing Chinese goods could be considered.

Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal recently claimed to be victims of these kinds of attacks. The NYT said was a persistent target for hackers based in China -- pointing an accusatory finger at security firm Symantec for not protecting it -- and this resulted in data breaches where passwords and administrative details were stolen. The WSJ says that it has had to combat cyberattacks for "several years" and suggested that confidential emails may have eventually made their way to Chinese officials.

However, attacks against media outlets which may originate from China are not isolated incidents. There has been a string of data breaches and cyberattacks against American banks, universities and companies -- many said to come from the Asian country. Cybersecurity firms often trace these kinds of threats back to China, and many tech giants -- including Google -- have complained for years that the problem is escalating.

It is not just China which is of concern as a number of cyberattacks are also traced back to Africa and Russia. Newly-discovered Red October, for example, targets very specific organizations in order to steal data and gather intelligence. The high-profile targets and origins of the code have led Kaspersky Labs to "strongly believe" it originated in Russia, and may have been state-sponsored.

The Chinese government and military have denied responsibility over monitoring or hacking. The Defense Ministry said that Chinese law forbids "hacking and any other actions that damage Internet security," and that "The Chinese military has never supported any hacking activities."

"The U.S. government has started to look seriously at more assertive measures and begun to engage the Chinese on senior levels," James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the AP. "They realize that this is a major problem in the bilateral relationship that threatens to destabilize U.S. relations with China."

The White House declined to comment on the possibility of tough sanctions against China, but spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said:

"The United States has substantial and growing concerns about the threats to U.S. economic and national security posed by cyber intrusions, including the theft of commercial information. We have repeatedly raised our concerns with senior Chinese officials, including in the military, and we will continue to do so."

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