JUST IN: Mumbai Incident Spotlights China's Cyber Capabilities
Digital attacks targeting India’s power grid — which have been widely attributed to China-linked hackers — may have emboldened Beijing to further flex its muscles in the cyber domain, warned a former top U.S. military official.
After recent border clashes between Chinese and Indian troops, power outages knocked out crucial functions, including hospitals, transportation systems and the stock market in Mumbai. Chinese malware was found in Indian goverment-owned infrastructure, according to a new study, "China-Linked Group RedEcho Targets the Indian Power Sector," by Recorded Future, a Somerville, Massachusetts-based cybersecuirty company.
These types of offensive cyber operations require the United States to seriously evaluate whether China is trying to send a message about its military strength, said retired U.S. Navy Vice Adm. T.J. White, former commander of U.S. Fleet Cyber Command and the U.S. Tenth Fleet.
China could be demonstrating its ability to use offensive cyber tools to apply pressure in global power struggles, he noted March 3 during an event hosted by the National Security Institute.
"As we interact on the world stage ... [the Chinese] may have outsized ability to have an impact on your domestic security and stability,” White said.
U.S. officials have been banging the drum about the Chinese cyber threat, including intellectual property theft, which has cost the U.S. economy up to $1 trillion, according to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and security firm McAfee, "The Hidden Costs of Cybercrime."
White added that recent incidents demonstrate the potentially far-reaching the effects of cyber operations.
“It moves fast, it moves at great scale, it runs deep, and it takes action across a wide front," he said.
Powergrids are critical infrastructure that are particularly vulnerable to cyber attack, including in the United States, he noted. Power generators use remote operations for convenience and efficiency, which creates opportunities for cyber interference.
It’s likely that China and Russia have already entered the U.S. power grid, he said.
“If we think China and Russia are peer actors, we should view ourselves as penetrated,” White said.
The U.S. military's cyber forces are only a fraction of the size of China's, which numbers 50,000 to 60,000, White said.
However, commercial industry and government contractors give the United States a chance to catch up despite China’s advantage in personnel, he added. Because so many cyber professionals have military backgrounds, the desire to serve the country is widespread, White said.
“Many get out [of the military], many go on and do bigger and better things to continue to innovate and to solve hard, challenging and thorny problems,” he said.
Efforts to encourage the younger generations to become interested in cybersecurity could help grow and strengthen the government’s cybersecurity forces, he added.