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China: Analysis From Washington -- A Truce In Cyberspace?

Washington, 10 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A truce has been called in a 40-day cyberwar between Chinese and American computer hackers. This accord may not last, but both the willingness to call an end to that conflict and the conflict itself highlight the ways in which the Internet is becoming an increasingly important battleground in international affairs.

The latest hacker war started on 1 April after an American surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter and thus was forced to make an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island. Almost immediately, American hackers broke into thousands of Chinese sites, especially those with the extension .cn, which designates a Chinese location. The electronic intruders then defaced these sites in various ways, often leaving messages such as "we will hate China forever, and we will hack its sites."

According to Beijing's "China Daily" last week, almost 14 percent of all hacker attacks during April were against Chinese mainland sites, with approximately 100 of these sites being defaced or otherwise damaged by foreign intruders. The paper said that hacker damage on these sites had been relatively high because few Chinese sites have the kind of security protections that many Western sites do.

In response to what they viewed as electronic aggression, even though much of the damage was little more than graffiti, a Chinese hacker group, the so-called Honker Union of China, launched a counterattack that they called off on 9 May after claiming to have attacked 1,000 U.S. sites. The Chinese hackers destroyed files, defaced sites, and left messages. And having met what they said was their goal, the Honker Union said that "any attacks from this point on have no connection" with that organization.

That statement may reflect less the hubris of Chinese hackers than pressure from a Chinese government increasingly concerned about the damage these attacks and counterattacks was doing to its computers and its ability to pursue a government-controlled foreign policy.

This truce between Chinese and American hackers may hold for some time to come, unless and until some other event triggers popular anger in either or both of the two countries. But even if this announced truce proves to be a genuine armistice -- something that is far from clear -- this latest war in cyberspace points to the emergence of three serious challenges to the international system in the future.

First, hackers now constitute yet another participant in political crises, but a participant that is especially threatening because it is so obviously beyond the effective control of the governments involved. Over the last month, neither Beijing nor Washington has been able to prevent the hackers from making a difficult situation even worse both politically and in terms of the economic damage hackers can do.

Second, the hackers involved often reflect or at least present a more overtly nationalist position than diplomats and other political leaders find it expedient to express. But the messages the hackers convey may inflame passions on both sides and even lead some officials involved to conclude that they represent a kind of side channel of information, one being used by the other side to say what it really believes or to put pressure on the negotiating process.

And third, the new power of the hackers to create problems for governments and businesses appears likely to force all governments to push for more security on the websites maintained in their countries and to encourage at least some governments to consider using hackers as a weapon to promote their interests.

There is no evidence that either Beijing or Washington did so in the current crisis. Indeed, both governments seemed more troubled by the actions of the hackers than pleased by the messages they were conveying. And it appears likely that most governments will conclude that hackers are likely to prove a difficult if not impossible ally given the anarchic leanings of most people who engage in computer hacking.

But after this first truly international cyberwar, not only Washington and Beijing but other governments as well are likely to begin to factor in the impact of hackers on their ties with other countries -- even as political leaders try to devise some new defense against a force that up to now has remained beyond and outside of government control.