Is China seeking wider societal disruption through cyber-disruption?

Hacks have increased through the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. — © AFP/File Noel Celis

It has been reported that China’s cyber-ops against the U.S. have shifted from espionage activities towards targeting infrastructure and seeking wider societal disruption. This new level of risk has been stated by the Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA).

The Intelligence Community (IC) threat assessment states that in the event of a major conflict with the U.S., Beijing would “almost certainly” consider undertaking aggressive cyber operations against critical infrastructure and military assets – including pipelines and rail lines – delaying military deployment and inducing societal panic.

Commenting on this, Elliott Wilkes, chief technology officer at Advanced Cyber Defence Systems, explains to Digital Journal: “On May 24th, members of the U.S., U.K., Canadian and Australia cyber defence and intelligence agencies jointly released a report on the activities of Chinese State-sponsored cyber groups and how their techniques are changing.”

In terms of the specifics, Wilkes notes: “In the report, they describe a shift of attention away from conventional espionage targets to companies and systems involved in critical infrastructure.”

Turning his attention to the veracity of the findings, Wilkes judges: “First of all, this is a notable report just by virtue of the number of agencies working in collaboration on it. Over the past few years this form of public attribution of malicious activities by state-sponsored cyber groups—a naming and shaming, so to speak—has been increasingly used by Western countries as a tool to unmask the previously shadowy work of foreign intelligence and military agencies.”

Expanding further on the form of potential cyberattack, Wilkes delves deeper into what states and corporations can expect if defences do bot go to plan: “This is a kind of state-craft that is being used by the five eyes countries and others to effectively draw lines around unacceptable behaviour.”

The best defence is to talk widely about the risks. Here Wilkes observes: “By naming the techniques and tactics, and doing so, not just in specific highly technical circles, but very publicly via Twitter and media interviews, this signals to state-sponsored groups in China, and elsewhere, that these activities are being monitored and that aggression will not be tolerated.”

Considering the types of global affairs that could make an attack more likely, Wilkes opines: “For these specific instances described by NSA, GCHQ, CISA and others, these Chinese state-sponsored groups have targeted companies and infrastructure in geopolitically strategic sites that would be critical if there were to be a conflict in Taiwan. One example is telecoms infrastructure in Guam, a US territory with US military personnel, and likely a key site for deploying any US counter to a possible Chinese offensive in Taiwan.”

Wilkes concludes by sounding out a warning for the business community: “There is also a point where the western agencies gain by alerting the wider business community that they are now also coming under attack from sophisticated state sponsored cyber groups. These public messages help western agencies reinforce the need for strong cyber security beyond the traditional state-on-state sector.”

Is China seeking wider societal disruption through cyber-disruption?

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