Cyber Cold War begins: US lawmakers strive to block Chinese comms firms Huawei and ZTE

9 Oct 2012

US lawmakers are striving to prevent US telecoms companies doing business with Chinese telecoms equipment makers like Huawei and ZTE. The US House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee has produced a report claiming Chinese state influence on these companies poses a threat to US national security.

The question is how valid and real are the lawmakers’ claims? Certainly they are a balm for the ears of conspiracy theorists and survivalists in the Blue Mountains who fear a kill switch could herald a Red Dawn-style invasion or at the very least cyber snooping and other forms of attack.

But in a globalised economy where Android and iOS devices proliferate in cities from Shanghai and Singapore to Jaipur, Paris and Boston, surely we have moved beyond such Cold War fears? Possibly not.

It is is understood that both Huawei and ZTE have been fighting an uphill battle to sell equipment in the US. Indeed, it was reported yesterday that Cisco cut ties with ZTE after it was claimed the Chinese manufacturer was selling Cisco equipment to Iran in spite of international sanctions.

The report of the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee makes some dramatic claims also. Chairman Mike Rogers told the press that companies that had used Huawei equipment are alleging strange behaviour, such as routers sending large volumes of data throughout the night.

Rogers, who is also a former FBI agent, also said the companies failed to fully co-operate with the investigation.

You have to wonder, though, how much of this is driven by pride. The US economy, like many others around the world, fell off a cliff four years ago and now China’s booming economy is in the ascendency. Indeed stung national pride at how much China now owns the US is being trumpeted loudly in the White House elections race between Romney and Obama.

But you also have to look at the times we are in. Cyber warfare and cyber espionage is a very real factor in terms of the security of nations and individuals. There is no getting away from that.

Weapons of cyber destruction

As we pointed out before, the 2010 attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities via the Stuxnet worm – believed to have been developed by the Israeli secret service – and the attacks last year on military contractor Lockheed Martin’s computer networks are just scratching the surface of what’s really happening.

Last year, it was alleged that hackers based in China had stolen Gmail login details of hundreds of senior US and South Korean government officials and other Asian officials, as well as Chinese political activists, military personnel and journalists.

The US also said last year it will view attacks on its networks as an attack on sovereign American soil and will respond with conventional military force, as well as state-of-the-art cyber force.

“If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks,” a US military official was quoted as saying in a Wall Street Journal article.

The US is understood to have developed a list of cyber weapons, including viruses that can sabotage an adversary’s critical networks. The framework, which classifies these cyber weapons in the same light as an M-16 battle rifle or an Abrams battle tank, clarifies whether the US military needs presidential authorisation to penetrate a foreign computer network and leave a virus.

It is hard to say whether the persecution of Huawei and ZTE by a committee led by politicians is paranoia or hurt national pride, but in a network-centric world the technologies do exist to cause mayhem.

Has the Cyber Cold War just begun?

Cyber war image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years