Globalization: The Overlooked Cybersecurity Threat

In my opinion, the single most significant threat to keeping state classified, corporate industrial, and private citizen data secure is globalization.

It’s all too tempting for national ISPs and other telecommunications firms to buy the cheapest equipment they can. It’s also all too tempting for a nation state to collaborate with a telecommunications equipment manufacturer to implement backdoors for international cyberespionnage purposes. It all boils down to the almighty dollar, or yen, or euro.

But in the rush to make and save money, what have we lost?

China

China’s military is one major source of cyberespionnage that uses backdoors in equipment made by state connected manufacturers.

Some of you probably are aware of the US House of Representatives’ report from October 2012. The bipartisan report confirmed backdoors in networking infrastructure components made by Huawei and ZTE. It said, “China has the means, opportunity, and motive to use telecommunications companies for malicious purposes. Huawei and ZTE have failed to assuage the committee’s significant security concerns presented by their continued expansion into the US… In fact, given their obstructionist behaviour, the committee believes addressing these concerns have become an imperative for the country.” The report concluded that American telecommunications companies should avoid Huawei and ZTE products in their infrastructure.

Of course, in response Huawei denied the report’s findings.

Huawei’s American Vice President of External Affairs said, “Baseless suggestions otherwise or purporting that Huawei is somehow uniquely vulnerable to cyber mischief ignore technical and commercial realities, recklessly threaten American jobs and innovation, do nothing to protect national security, and should be exposed as dangerous political distractions from legitimate public-private initiatives to address what are global and industry-wide cyber challenges.”

“It would be immensely foolish for Huawei to risk involvement in national security or economic espionage. There are no backdoors in any of Huawei’s equipment,” said the company in another statement.

United States

In July 2014, Chinese broadcaster CCTV said that the Apple iPhone poses a possible national security threat. That’s because they suspect the device’s location tracking and time stamping functions may be employed in American cyber espionnage.

The Chinese government at times has alos had policies against buying PCs with Microsoft Windows 8 and has also warned about the company’s Office 365 cloud-based productivity software suite.

In response to the Chinese government’s Office 365 ban, a Microsoft executive said to China Daily anonymously that Microsoft representatives in China “have contacted the Ministry of Finance, the governing body of government procurement projects. They had no idea of the ruling as well.”

Some suspect that what the Chinese government has said in recent years about Apple and Microsoft, and Google and Cisco as well, may be retaliation for American suspicions about Huawei and ZTE. That’s pure speculation clearly, but it’s an interesting symptom of what might happen when international heavyweights are engaged in a cybersecurity arms race.

By now, you’re almost certainly aware of Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor. He revealed a lot of sensitive information about the extent of the NSA’s surveillance activities. Here’s some of the information he released that the United States government may be unhappy about.

According to a report from the NSA’s Access and Target Development department dated in June 2010, the NSA collects or intercepts networking and computing equipment that’s exported from the United States. They place backdoors into them however possible, and even use factory seals when they’re done.

On April 19th, 2015, the New Zealand Hearld published an article about a plan between American and New Zealand intelligence agencies to intercept networking data between the Chinese consolate and a Chinese passport office in Auckland.

Obviously, China wasn’t pleased to learn that. The day following the NZ Herald article, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeperson Hong Lei said, “We are extremely concerned about this report. We strongly urge the relevant countries to immediately stop using the Internet to damage the interests of China and other countries.”

Glenn Greenwald is a journalist Snowden shared his revelations with before he moved to Russia for asylum.

Greenwald believes that the United States warned the public about Chinese surveillance technologies because they may interfere with the ability of American surveillance technologies to gather data for the NSA. If Greenwald is correct, that’s a stunning development in international cyberwarfare!

There’s more interesting information revealed by Snowden.

In 2009, the NSA because aware of a possible cyberattack on the US Department of Defense (DoD). The DoD traced IP addresses to Asia, and then specifically to China. From there, they gathered intelligence on other possible Chinese attacks which included stealing data from the United Nations (UN). Shortly later on, the NSA surveilled as live data was gathered from an another ongoing attack on UN’s interal data. A 2011 report concluded, “The NSA is able to tap into Chinese SIGINT (signals intelligence) collection.

When a nation’s intelligence operations are able to acquire data from another nation’s intelligence operations without consent, the NSA refers to it as “fourth party” intelligence. The infornation Snowden revealed that fourth party intelligence gathering techniques may be used by the United States to surveill any nation that’s outside of the Five Eyes alliance. (The Five Eyes consist of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.)

Conclusion

I believe both China and the United States have used their access to networking equipment manufacturers to acquire an advantage in international intelligence collection. But in order to learn from the past to prevent future cyberespionnage incidents, it’s best to focus on the big picture.

It’s probable that China and the United States aren’t the only nations that’ll be caught in such activities in the future.

If at all possible, nations should buy telecommunications infrastucture equipment from domestic manufacturers. When that isn’t possible, especially for smaller nations, infrastructure should be purchased from nations with close military and intelligence alliances. Nations lacking in manufacturers of needed networking equipment should consider investing in public or private sector companies to make them capable of producing such products. If that’s done, not only will it benefit cybersecurity, it’ll also greatly benefit a nation’s domestic economy.