Is There Nothing We Can Do To Stop Chinese Hackers?

The New York Times has a pretty stunning story this morning about Chinese military hackers. A security firm called Mandiant managed to track a huge number of attacks back to a single building near Shanghai that's operated by the Chinese military, a place called Unit 61398. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt linked to the article on his Google+ feed but added no comment, though Google of course has been the target of "highly sophisticated" (cough, government, cough) attacks from China.

The Chinese deny everything, of course. But as Mandiant puts it, either the attacks are all coming from inside this government building, or "a secret, resourced organization full of mainland Chinese speakers with direct access to Shanghai-based telecommunications infrastructure is engaged in a multiyear enterprise-scale computer espionage campaign right outside of Unit 61398's gates." 

Yes, maybe there are thousands of rogue hackers all working right outside this one military building and somehow the Chinese government, which keeps a chokehold on Internet usage, is completely unaware of what's taking place right underneath its nose.

So, okay. It's happening. As we reported earlier this month, World War III is already here, and we're all just pretending that it's not happening, and worst of all, we're losing.

What is to be done? 

(See also World War III Is Already Here - And We're Losing)

We Could Try Fighting Back

Back in August 2011 I interviewed Richard Clarke, a former top U.S. cybersecurity official who now runs a security and risk management company called Good Harbor Consulting.

Clarke complained that U.S. officials didn't even dare to bring up the subject with the Chinese. "We're doing nothing to penalize them. So from their perspective, why not do it?" Clarke said.

He suggested we ought to start fighting back, by zapping malware back into the computers from which the attacks originated. Though that might escalate tensions, "it's better than lying there prostrate having all your research and development and intellectual property stolen and doing nothing about it." 

According to the Times article, the U.S. government intends to start "a more aggressive defense" against the Chinese hackers. But not too tough, because of "huge diplomatic sensitivities," says an unnamed intelligence official. For example, though President Obama mentioned hackers in his recent State of the Union address, he spoke vaguely of "foreign countries and companies," and did not mention China specifically.

Maybe there's nothing we can do. Maybe our economic dependence on China makes it impossible for us to complain. If that's the case, then our troubles have only begun.

Image courtesy of Reuters.