Cybersecurity, in many ways, is a more widespread problem here than in the United States, industry experts say. Holes in China’s systems are more numerous and its public less protected. Worry about those vulnerabilities has surged in the wake of disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden about U.S. operations to hack into Chinese Internet traffic hubs and cellphone companies.
The latest revelations, in documents provided to The Washington Post, showed that China was among the top targets of cyber operations carried out by U.S. intelligence services in 2011. But the threat to Chinese computers comes not simply from foreign agents, technology experts say. Increasingly, officials and business leaders are also worrying about the widespread damage caused by China’s own hackers.
Now, officials in China’s government and the cybersecurity sector are pushing for a national strategy to protect information in the country’s computer systems. Demand for Chinese-made tech security products is up, industry analysts say. And many Chinese are calling for a ban on U.S. hardware in sensitive sectors of government and industry.
“For those in the industry, we really need to thank Snowden,” joked Tony Yuan, founder of NetentSec, a Beijing company selling fire-wall hardware and Internet filtering tools.
Government and company officials who once saw information-technology security as an unnecessary cost, Yuan said, have suddenly become interested in upgrades.
“Now,” he said, “you just mention Snowden as an example and they easily understand the need for something like next-generation fire walls.”
A hacking culture
Many industry analysts say they believe China reserves its best defensive cybersecurity technology for elite echelons of the military and the ruling Communist Party. But for most people in China, computer security is poor and the damage caused by everyday hacking is immense.
The threat is the result of China’s huge pool of hacking talent, a culture of corruption and a lack of enforcement.
“In the U.S., if you’re local and you hack someone else, you’re going to jail because law enforcement has built up the tools and awareness for that,” said Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at the Alexandria-based firm Mandiant, which specializes in cyber-forensics. “In China, you get the sense there’s a lot of activity but not much institutional ability to deal with it.”
One government-commissioned survey estimated that 60 percent of China’s Internet users have lost personal data online. An academic study last year estimated the economic cost of hacking in China at $852 million.
In the past two years, Chinese criminals have stolen several databases with millions of log-ins and passwords in a series of raids on China’s largest Web portals and retailers. Companies in China have been known to use hackers to spy on their competition, immobilize other companies’ Web sites and sabotage payment systems, Chinese security experts say.