Internet Security Threats

March 19, 2013

From VOA Learning English, welcome back to AS IT IS. I’m your host Mario Ritter.
China officially has its new leaders in place. This year’s National People’s Congress named Xi Jinping president and Li Kejiang premier. Listen to some of the issues that are gaining importance in China including, the environment. But first, we hear about concerns over Internet security threats coming from China.

President Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon has said that Chinese cyber-attacks are threats to both national security and the economy. A recent report by the Internet security company Mandiant says 90 percent of the cyber-attacks on the United States come from China. Two cyber-security experts spoke on VOA’s “Encounter” program about why the issue is now getting a lot of attention. Christopher Cruise has more.

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan is a technology security expert in Washington. She says the attacks in cyberspace are as serious as the threat of global terrorism. There are two main ways that cyber-attacks can hurt the country. One is by targeting important systems that provide things like electricity, water or communications that are needed for daily life.

“What we are increasingly seeing are threats against our critical infrastructure. So, we’re talking about threats against our energy sector, the banking sector, the telecommunications, smart grids, oil and gas, basically, all the critical assets that we have and that operate our day to day living.”

She says cyber-attacks also target companies that are not vital but can affect the economy if their business is hurt. Lost business means fewer jobs, which would affect the economy. She says both national and economic security are in serious danger from computer hacking.

Jason Healey is an expert in international cooperation, competition and conflict in cyberspace with the Atlantic Group in Washington. He agrees that cyber-attacks are a problem. But he does not believe they are as serious as terrorism. He says no loss of life has yet taken place. But he does agree that the economic effects of hacking are real.

“When we look at the economic damage that might be happening, the theft of trade secrets, that is [a] significant concern.”

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan says she is not surprised that the Obama administration is voicing its concerns now about cyber-security.

“It’s a recognition that there are attacks going on daily across the scope of businesses and government that need to be addressed, and that those attacks are coming from China and possibly other like-minded nations.”

Jason Healey says it is important to define the terms of the discussion when discussing cyber-attacks. He says that, at this time, physical damage is not being done.

“Much of what we are talking about here is actually intrusions: breaking into a computer and taking things, but not really breaking the computer.”

Intrusion into computer systems, or hacking, has taken place for many years. The difference now, he says, is that the United States has publicly called on Chinese officials to do something about it.

China says it too is the victim of cyber-attacks.

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan says there are two ways of dealing with cyber-attacks. The first is through trade relations. China is a member of the World Trade Organization and has entered agreements that bar it from stealing trade secrets. Another response is by answering attacks with attacks. But, she says, offensive action can be complicated and may not have a good result. corruption. He says publicly punishing companies that pay or accept bribes has done a lot to limit official corruption in many countries. He says the same method can be used against companies that are known to use hacking to gain trade secrets.

“The world has made great strides within the last 15 years on corruption. I think it would be interesting if the U.S. were to go for a similar policy to vilify any corporation that was known to be stealing industrial secrets or accepting industrial secrets, especially if they use them in products.”

Both experts agree that the main countries that are able to carry out cyber warfare are China, Russia and the United States. They say those and other nations need to agree on rules governing acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

China’s National People’s Congress ended on Sunday. At the event, Xi Jinping was officially named China’s president. The Congress also named Li Keqiang as the new premier. Li Keqiang spoke to reporters after the meetings. Karen Leggett tells us more.

The new premier rejected accusations from the United States of Chinese computer hacking. He said the two countries should not make accusations against each other without evidence. Mr. Li said they should instead work together on the issue of cyber security. He noted that China is a big target of computer attacks itself.

VOA spoke to Stephen Lewis, a China expert at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He spoke about some of the issues that were discussed at the National People’s Congress. He says China and the United States are still seeking to understand the extent of cyber security threats they face. Stephen Lewis says it still is not clear which agencies, in either country, would lead discussions about the issue.

“While they’re trying to assess the threat, both countries are trying to determine who should sit down at the table.”

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew holds economic talks with Chinese officials this week. The talks are expected to include the issue of cyber-attacks from China on American businesses, including media companies. Targets included the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

Another issue that China’s new Premier spoke about was the environment. His statements were a sign to Stephen Lewis that those issues are of growing importance.

“I think environment [issues] will be increasingly important. I thought it was very interesting that Li Keqiang, the premier, mentioned in there that he said we will work on cleaning cities including the city that I live in.”

China’s new president, Xi Jinping, spoke to the National People’s Congress on Sunday.

The Congress is largely considered ceremonial, with more than 3,000 delegates voting on government positions and committees. But there were over 800 opposing votes from members of an environmental protection committee. The vote may have demonstrated sympathy with public anger over severe air and water pollution.

I’m Karen Leggett. Thank you for joining us today.