Face-off 2.0

A new US report indicates the growing role of cyberspace as an arena of conflict between nations

A US department of defence report to Congress used the strongest language yet to implicate the Chinese government and military as the source of cyber attacks on US government computer systems, accusing it of using "its computer network exploitation capability to support intelligence collection against the US diplomatic, economic and defence industrial base sectors that support US national (military) programmes" and to bolster its defence and technology industries. Beijing has reacted strongly, with a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman dismissing the allegations. But the kerfuffle over the report points to growing concern over the threat posed by cyber espionage and warfare from foreign state actors and their proxies.

The Pentagon's report an annual exercise that looks at developments in the Chinese military said the Chinese cyber intrusions could help it close the gap with superior US land, sea and air capabilities. Earlier reports have also identified Chinese state-sponsored actors as regularly attempting to compromise and infiltrate sensitive US government and private-sector systems, but none with this certainty.

The world has not yet seen a true cyber war, but the consequences of one could be disastrous. The 2007 attack on Estonia, allegedly sponsored by Russian officials, caused little damage but provided a glimpse of the havoc that could be unleashed if states were to target infrastructure like electricity grids or telecommunications networks. Preparedness is key, and given that China's cyber explorations have also been directed at India, the government must take this report seriously and take steps to protect its computer systems.

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