Sun, Jun 09, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Silicon Valley on the front lines
of a global cyberwar

With big US firms under attack, allegedly from China, many are lobbying to ‘hack back’

By Martha Mendoza  /  AP, SAN JOSE, California

Illustration: June Hsu

Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and US President Barack Obama talked cybersecurity this weekend in California, but experts say the state’s Silicon Valley and its signature high-tech firms should provide the front lines in the increasingly aggressive fight against overseas hackers.

With China seeking to grow its economy and expand its technology base, companies like Facebook, Apple, Google and Twitter are inviting targets. In fact, all have been attacked and all point the finger at China, which has denied any role.

The US government has stepped up efforts to thwart cyberattacks, but those efforts are mainly focused at protecting its own secrets, especially regarding military operations and technologies.

Paul Rosenzweig, a former US Department of Homeland Security official whose Red Branch Consulting provides national security advice, said the responsibility for preventing attacks in the private sector lies with the US innovators who created the technology that is being hacked in the first place.

“To some degree, they were getting a pass,” he said. “If a car manufacturer made a car that was routinely able to be stolen, they’d be sued. If software is made with gaps that are a liability, they bear some responsibility, and in recent years there’s been a sea change in high-tech firms accepting that responsibility.”

Big firms like Google employ thousands of security experts who can spot a potential attack on just a few individuals and quickly disseminate protection for everyone using their products. Google routinely detects unsafe Web sites that spread malicious software or trick people into revealing personal information, posting warnings in front of users and contacting Webmasters who may have been hacked.

Yet, Chinese hackers have managed to hit even Google, and in a book released this spring, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt said China is the world’s “most sophisticated and prolific hacker.”

Cybersecurity was high on the agenda for meetings between Obama and Xi on Friday and yesterday in southern California’s Rancho Mirage. A recent US government report found nearly 40 Pentagon weapons programs and almost 30 other defense technologies were compromised by cyberintrusions from China. Earlier this year, cybersecurity firm Mandiant linked a secret Chinese military unit to years of cyberattacks against US companies.

Mandiant chief security officer Richard Bejtlich said his firm tracks more than 20 potentially threatening groups of hackers in China, some with links to the government and military.

China’s government denies any involvement, with Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng (耿雁生) telling reporters last Sunday that the US claims “underestimate the intelligence of the Chinese people.”

However, frustration is growing as the attacks continue. Although none have come out publicly, analysts say some US companies even are considering cyberattacks of their own as retaliation, even though it is illegal. Retaliatory hacking was a hot topic at the 2013 RSA Conference on tech security in March, where attorneys and sitting judges even held a mock trial over an imaginary firm that struck back.

And on May 20, the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, headed by former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and former US director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, recommended that the US Congress and the Obama administration reconsider the laws banning retaliation.

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