Chinese hacks show that cybersecurity isn’t just academic: opinion

  • TECH
  • Wednesday, 06 Mar 2019

FILE PHOTO: A computer network cable is seen above a Chinese flag in this July 12, 2017 illustration photo. REUTERS/Thomas White/Illustration/File Photo

For decades, back before the Cold War, universities were fertile hunting grounds for espionage. 

Western and Soviet intelligence agencies were known to recruit spies directly from campuses at home, while grooming up-and-coming experts in target countries who might one day be in positions of knowledge or power. 

A massive hacking campaign reportedly waged by China against more than two dozen universities doesn’t fall into that mould, and looks to be a significant escalation of Beijing’s cyber-espionage operations. 

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Washington, University of Hawaii, and Penn State are among the US targets, as well as South Korea’s Sahmyook University, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing research by iDefense, a unit of Accenture Security. The findings are consistent with intelligence gathered by cybersecurity company FireEye Inc, according to the newspaper. 

Common among them is their link to research into maritime technology for use in the military, the WSJ notes. 

China’s foreign hacking work is already well-documented, with targets extending beyond the US Navy to include corporations such as Westinghouse Electric Co and Alcoa Corp. And the US is hardly innocent: Its most famous hack implanted the Stuxnet worm inside Iran to successfully interrupt that country’s nuclear programme. 

Yet there’s something deeply disquieting about the idea that academic institutions are now victims of state-sponsored cyber espionage. 

Universities are supposed to be bastions of unbridled curiosity and intellectual exploration, not ground zero for the murky world of subterfuge and superpower manoeuvring. I appreciate the dichotomy inherent in that statement: Schools that develop military technologies have already lost their innocence. 

And that’s why universities need to ensure they’re not naïve about the threats they face. Many have cybersecurity policies in place, with various levels of defence installed on their networks. As the global cyber war escalates, more coordination will be required across departments and at the individual faculty level. 

While much of the espionage conducted during the Cold War focused on military technology, strategy and capability, China’s cyber campaign has extended to corporate secrets and civilian technology. Beijing doesn’t just want to know how to build a modern jet fighter, but how to develop advanced semiconductors.  

That makes defence far more difficult, with many more possible vulnerabilities – attack vectors, in security parlance. And it means that academic institutions need to develop ways to pool and share their knowledge. Like much of what academia produces, those insights can then be used to benefit wider society. 

A paper published by the American University in March 2018 discusses knowledge networks, collections of people that share information, as an important tool for defending against and responding to cyber attacks. 

“Understanding the areas of knowledge that are important for cybersecurity in organisations, and how that knowledge is distributed across roles and units in alignment with information system governance goals, is the purpose of this research.” 

And the authors should know. One of them is alleged old-school spy Maria Butina. – Bloomberg 

(Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.)

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