Capability of the PRC to conduct cyber warfare and computer network exploitation

I just finished reading a recent report [pdf] with this title produced for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Though there’s a lot of filler material, it’s pretty good. I’ll spare you the trouble of reading all 88 pages and start with what I thought were the most salient themes covered in the executive summary:

  • Some evidence exists suggesting limited collaboration between individual elite hackers and the Chinese government; however
  • The constant barrage of network penetrations from China (comprising most of what Mandiant calls “the advanced persistent threat“) “is difficult at best without some type of state-sponsorship”.
  • The modus operandi of the penetrations “suggests the existence of a collection management infrastructure”; and
  • PLA CNE aims during a military conflict would be “to delay US deployments and impact combat effectiveness of troops already in theater”.

The PLA’s “Integrated Network Electronic Warfare” doctrine is based on attacking a few carefully selected network nodes controlling C2 and logistics. The INEW doctrine was apparently validated in a 2004 OPFOR exercise when the red force (NB. the Chinese use red to denote themselves) C2 network got pwned within minutes, and it is likely that PRC leadership would authorize preemptive cyberattacks if they think it wouldn’t cross any “red lines”. This preemptive strategy is apparently favored by some in the PLA who view cyber as a “strategic deterrent comparable to nuclear weapons but posessing greater precision, leaving far fewer casualties, and possessing longer range than any weapon in the PLA arsenal“. [emphasis original]

One aspect of this thinking that I think is underappreciated is that the PRC is already deterring the US by its apparent low-level attacks. These attacks demonstrate a capability of someone in no uncertain terms and in fact may be a cornerstone of the PLA’s overall deterrence strategy. In short, if the PLA convinces US leadership that it can (at least) throw a monkey wrench in US deployments, suddenly the PRC has more leverage over Taiwan, where the PLA would need to mount a quick amphibious operation. And because it’s possible to view the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to legitimacy as deriving first of all from its vow to reunite China (i.e., retake the “renegade province” of Taiwan) one day, there is a clear path from the PLA cyber strategy to the foundations of Chinese politics.

The paper goes on to note that “much of China’s contemporary military history reflects a willingness to use force in situations where the PRC was clearly the weaker entity” and suggests that such uses of force were based on forestalling the consequences of an even greater disadvantage in the future. This putative mindset also bears on cyber, particularly through the Taiwan lens. The PLA has concluded that cyber attacks focusing on C2 and logistics would buy it time, and presumably enough time (in its calculations) to achieve its strategic aims during a conflict. This strategy requires laying a foundation, and thus the PRC is presumably penetrating networks: not just for government and industrial espionage, but also to make its central war plan credible.

In practice a lot of the exploitation would consist of throttling encrypted communications and corrupting unencrypted comms, and it is likely that the PLA is deliberately probing the boundaries of what can and cannot be detected by the US. But this generally shouldn’t be conflated with hacktivism or any civilian attacks originating from China, as there’s little reason to believe that the PLA needs or wants anything to do with this sort of thing. While it’s possible that there is some benefit to creating a noisy threat environment, executing precise cyberattacks in the INEW doctrine requires exploitation that can be undermined by hacktivism or civilian (especially amateur) attacks.

The end of the meaty part of the report talks about what’s being done and what should be done. It talks about the ineffectiveness of signature-based IDS/IPS and the promise of network behavior analysis, but also its higher overhead and false alarm rates. This is precisely the sort of thing our software is aimed at mitigating, by combining dynamical network traffic profiles and interactively configurable automated alerts with a framework for low-overhead monitoring and fast drill-down.

3 Responses to Capability of the PRC to conduct cyber warfare and computer network exploitation

  1. [...] I’ve suggested elsewhere, the PRC may very well be using cyberattacks to deter conventional attacks: the PRC is already [...]

  2. [...] power, and this requires controlling the flow of information. Moreover, and as I’ve mentioned before, there is a clear path from China’s cyber strategy to the foundations of its politics. So [...]

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