Given the often-times fractious relationship between Google and the Chinese government, it appears commercially unwise for the search giant’s chairman to accuse Beijing of being both the world’s most active internet censor and its “most sophisticated and prolific” hacker. Undiplomatic, perhaps; but the revelations of the past week give Eric Schmidt’s analysis more credibility than ever.
The New York Times claims that its publication of a story outlining the multi-billion-dollar fortune amassed by the family of the Chinese Premier – Wen Jiabao – led to a sustained cyber campaign against the newspaper and its reporters. Emails were broken into, passwords stolen and attacks routed via a US university in an attempt to cover the hackers’ tracks. China, of course, denies all knowledge. But experts hired by the publisher claim that the approach shared a suspicious number of traits with previous incidents associated with the Chinese military.
It is not only the vehemence of Beijing’s response that is so striking, but also its reach. China is far from the only state to use cyber attacks to further its agenda, however. Russia and Iran also have much to answer for, particularly in targeting large companies in strategic sectors such as energy or banking. Nor are such activities limited to the usual suspects. The most well-known attack is “Stuxnet”, the “worm” used by the US (and perhaps Israel) to disable Iran’s nuclear centrifuges in 2010 – a move hailed by many as a welcome alternative to bombs and bloodshed.
The British Government is pouring money into cyber security even as the defence budget is being pared back. Rightly so. Stuxnet proved that a piece of malicious code can disrupt a mechanical system, raising the spectre of energy grids shut down or banking systems paralysed. The attacks against the New York Times suggest that espionage and political manipulation are hardly less of a risk. Mr Schmidt’s estimation of the scale of China’s activities only adds to the urgency.