It all depends on who you ask.
Yesterday Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said that four of his computers, which had detailed information on his human rights and foreign policy information, were hacked into two years ago. The FBI identified that the hackers came from China, and Wolf says he "was targeted by Chinese sources because of my long history of speaking out about China's abysmal human rights record."
Wolf wasn't the only congressman with allegations of Chinese cyber-attacks; Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) gave accounts of two cyber-attacks on the Human Rights Subcommittee's computers. The IT professionals identified that the source of the attack came from China, and most of the hacked files contained information about China-related proposals.
"While this absolutely doesn't prove that Beijing was behind the attack," Smith says, "it raises serious questions that it was."
Allegations of hacking from China seem to be increasingly frequent. This past year, reports have surfaced of Chinese hacking into both the Pentagon and computers of the staff of Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, but they remain under investigation. Combatting cyber-attacks is currently the FBI's third highest priority, behind preventing terrorism and public corruption.
While China has been a frequent target of hacking allegations, Chinese spokesman, Qin Gang, denied them. He urged "some people in the U.S. not to be paranoid," at a press conference earlier today, and said that China simply didn't have technology capable of such an act.
It's possible that the congressmen, both of whom are known for their scathing critiques of China's human rights policies, are just paranoid. Perhaps the completed investigations of Gutierrez's computers will indicate no foul play. On the other hand, to suggest that China is a weak developing country that has inferior computer-hacking technology is absolutely ludicrous.
China has some of the most sophisticated computer technology, Internet monitoring systems, and hackers in the world. The Chinese government employees 30,000 people just to monitor Internet activity. By comparison, the Pentagon only has 23,000 on its entire staff. While there's no link between computer hackers and those who monitor the activity, it's a strong example of China's investment in Internet technology.
This type of computer infrastructure seems to negate Qin Gang's question of, "Do we have such advanced technology? Even I don't believe it." While he might not, plenty of others would beg to differ.
Richard Clarke, a computer security expert, gave a keynote address at Source Boston 2008, which expressed the real threat of cyber attacks. "In cyberspace, who knows what capability anyone has? If you really launched an attack against the U.S., how much could you shut down and what impact would that have?" he said. "We may be less able to attack our enemies and more vulnerable. There is no degree of certainty about cyber capabilities."
Theoretically, it's just as possible for a cyber attack to come from China as it could from Chicago. It's possible that a brilliant hacker with no ties to China whatsoever is targeting China's most outspoken critics to lead the FBI on a wild goose chase. They could be testing the limits of U.S. security in order to plan a devastating cyber-attack on the U.S. government.
Given the complex security of U.S. government computers, however, chances are that the human rights files and computers were not chosen by accident. Instead, someone or group had a direct interest in those specific files.
We might never identify the responsible party or know the real motivations behind these government security breaches. If the hackers are good enough to break into classified systems, they probably won't leave any trail behind them.
But ultimately identifying the computer hacking source is less important than reinforcing cyber-security to prevent a more devastating cyber-attack in the future.