Fears of international cyberwarfare were stoked this week, as a congressional committee revealed hackers – possibly from the Chinese military – attacked two U.S. satellites at least four times in 2007 and 2008.
According a report from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), NASA Landsat-7 and Terra AM-1 satellites were each hijacked by hackers from a Norwegian ground station twice between October 2007 and October 2008. The commission's report is expected to be released next month, but excerpts were obtained by news provider Bloomberg.
"Such interference poses numerous potential threats, particularly if achieved against satellites with more sensitive functions," the report stated, according to Bloomberg. "Access to a satellite‘s controls could allow an attacker to damage or destroy the satellite. An attacker could also deny or degrade as well as forge or otherwise manipulate the satellite’s transmission."
Bloomberg reported that the satellites are used to monitor Earth's terrain and climate. The Landsat-7 system was reportedly accessed for at least 12 minutes in October 2007 and July 2008. The Terra AM-1 satellite experienced two minutes and nine minutes of interference in June and October 2008, respectively.
The commission's report does not explicitly accuse the Chinese military of carrying out the attacks, Bloomberg stated, but it does say the breaches are in line with Chinese military writings that advocate the targeting and disabling of enemy space systems.
This wouldn't be the first time the USCC has hinted at China's involvement in cyber espionage. The commission's 2009 report stated that a "significant and increasing body of circumstantial and forensic evidence strongly indicates the involvement of Chinese state or state-supported entities." The report also noted that it is often difficult to determine whether cyberattacks that originate in China stem from private hacking groups or government action.
This criticism continued in the USCC's 2010 report, which stated that the Chinese government and individuals "continue to hack into American computer systems and network as well as those of foreign entities and governments." Furthermore, the USCC stated that Chinese cyberattacks are becoming more sophisticated than those used in the past.
Bloomberg reported that Chinese officials have denied involvement in any such attacks, stating that the USCC has been "vilifying" the country's international image for years.
The private sector has also had its fair share of run-ins with the Chinese government. In January 2010, for example, Google announced that it had "detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China" that, Google suggested, was intended to access Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
In response, Google decided to discontinue censor search results on Google.cn, and instead redirect search engine users to the unfiltered Google.com.hk. The move, the company admitted, could have resulted in the shut down of Google.cn, and the Chinese government threatened not to renew Google's Internet Content Provider (ICP) license, which allows the company to operate its commercial website in China.
In July 2010, Google announced that the Chinese government had ultimately decided to renew its ICP license, but the company noted that much work was still needed to find a balance between its commitment to avoid censorship and Chinese law.
A resolution of the United States' and China's suspicions is not likely to be found any time soon, given the wide divide between the two country's cybersecurity practices. The United States, for its part, has beefed up its data protection measures in recent in hopes of thwarting attacks from China or any other country. However, it is clear that much work needs to be done to bridge these discrepancies.
Security News from SimplySecurity.com by Trend Micro