Why cybersecurity matters
By Bian Liang  ·  2022-09-24  ·   Source: NO.39 SEPTEMBER 29, 2022

On September 5, China's National Computer Virus Emergency Response Center (CVERC) and cybersecurity company Qihoo 360 released a report on a joint investigation, revealing that the Office of Tailored Access Operations, a cyber intelligence-gathering unit of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), infiltrated Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU) in China's western city of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. The investigation reached its conclusion after analyzing Trojan samples extracted from phishing e-mails sent to the university's teachers and students in an attempt to steal their personal data.

Results of a further analysis found 41 types of cyber weapons were used in the attacks on the NPU. Among all, the sniffing and stealing tool known as Suctionchar was one of the most direct culprits responsible for the theft of sensitive data. It stealthily runs on intranet servers, monitors users' input in real time, and intercepts and collects all names and passwords.

NPU is a leading university in aviation, aerospace and navigation studies in China, and conducts national-level research in these fields. It is not surprising that the university would be a target of U.S. efforts to monitor critical data on the country's national defense and technological innovation.

This is not the first time the U.S. has conducted cyberespionage on China and it will not be the last. The CVERC-Qihoo 360 report said NSA conducted over 10,000 cyberattacks against China in recent years and is suspected to have stolen 140 GB of valuable data. A 2020 report from Qihoo 360 also showed that a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency hacking group had spent 11 years breaking into the Chinese airline and petroleum industries, scientific research institutions, and government agencies.

Grim consequences can result from cyberattacks, including water, food, transportation and medical shortages, if China fails to detect and stop them, trace their origins and patch weaknesses in its defenses. This assertion is not scaremongering. In March 2019, Venezuela suffered from a widespread blackout, reportedly attributed to hackers' attack on Guri Dam, one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the world and the source of most of the country's power. The New York-based investment bank Torino Capital estimated that $1 billion was lost from Venezuela's GDP as a result of the power outages.

Embracing a digital world has two sides. Work and life become more convenient, and more virtual. Meanwhile, attackers become more invisible and more dangerous as virtual attacks are able to bring physical harm.

China has revved up efforts to create a safer cyberspace. The Data Security Law, which became effective on September 1, 2021, requires a categorized and graded data management system based on varying levels of importance to economic and social development. It aims at standardizing the digital economy and cross-border data flow, and protecting people's privacy.

China, like all other countries across the world, will face a cybersecurity manpower shortage in the coming years as demand surges due to an increase in online threats, according to a white paper released by the Ministry of Education on September 6. The talent gap will be 3.27 million people by 2027, with higher education institutions capable of producing only 30,000 graduates in this field every year. As many as 92 percent of companies believe they face a lack of cybersecurity staff.

Cybersecurity is essential to national security. Facing new challenges, China needs greater investment across the board to better protect the key information infrastructure necessary to maintain the lifelines of the national economy.

The author is a cybersecurity expert at Qihoo 360

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

Comments to liwenhan@cicgamericas.com

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