The Truth About Chinese Hackers

By Bruce Schneier
Discovery Technology
June 19, 2008

The scoop: Last week, Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican, said four of his government computers had been hacked by sources working out of China. Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned security technologist, gives us his take on what went down.

The popular media concept is that there is a coordinated attempt by the Chinese government to hack into U.S. computers -- military, government corporate -- and steal secrets. The truth is a lot more complicated.

There certainly is a lot of hacking coming out of China. Any company that does security monitoring sees it all the time.

These hacker groups seem not to be working for the Chinese government. They don't seem to be coordinated by the Chinese military. They're basically young, male, patriotic Chinese citizens, trying to demonstrate that they're just as good as everyone else. As well as the American networks the media likes to talk about, their targets also include pro-Tibet, pro-Taiwan, Falun Gong and pro-Uyghur sites.

The hackers are in this for two reasons: fame and glory, and an attempt to make a living. The fame and glory comes from their nationalistic goals. Some of these hackers are heroes in China. They're upholding the country's honor against both anti-Chinese forces like the pro-Tibet movement and larger forces like the United States.

And the money comes from several sources. The groups sell owned computers, malware services, and data they steal on the black market. They sell hacker tools and videos to others wanting to play. They even sell T-shirts, hats and other merchandise on their Web sites.

This is not to say that the Chinese military ignores the hacker groups within their country. Certainly the Chinese government knows the leaders of the hacker movement and chooses to look the other way. They probably buy stolen intelligence from these hackers. They probably recruit for their own organizations from this self-selecting pool of experienced hacking experts. They certainly learn from the hackers.

And some of the hackers are good. Over the years, they have become more sophisticated in both tools and techniques. They're stealthy. They do good network reconnaissance. My guess is what the Pentagon thinks is the problem is only a small percentage of the actual problem.

And they discover their own vulnerabilities. Earlier this year, one security company noticed a unique attack against a pro-Tibet organization. That same attack was also used two weeks earlier against a large multinational defense contractor.

They also hoard vulnerabilities. During the 1999 conflict over the two-states theory conflict, in a heated exchange with a group of Taiwanese hackers, one Chinese group threatened to unleash multiple stockpiled worms at once. There was no reason to disbelieve this threat.

If anything, the fact that these groups aren't being run by the Chinese government makes the problem worse. Without central political coordination, they're likely to take more risks, do more stupid things and generally ignore the political fallout of their actions.

In this regard, they're more like a non-state actor.

So while I'm perfectly happy that the U.S. government is using the threat of Chinese hacking as an impetus to get their own cybersecurity in order, and I hope they succeed, I also hope that the U.S. government recognizes that these groups are not acting under the direction of the Chinese military and doesn't treat their actions as officially approved by the Chinese government.

earlier essay: The Pros and Cons of Lifelock
later essay: CCTV Doesn't Keep Us Safe, Yet the Cameras Are Everywhere
categories: Cyberwar and Cyberterrorism
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc..