China’s forces as a cyberpower are undermined by poor security and weak intelligence analysis, according to new research that predicts Beijing will be unable to match U.S. cyber capabilities for at least a decade.
The study, published on Monday by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, comes as a series of hacking campaigns have highlighted the growing threat of online espionage by hostile states.
In December, U.S. officials discovered that Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR, had hijacked SolarWinds software to penetrate government targets in Washington, including the departments of commerce and the Treasury. Three months later, Microsoft’s email software was compromised by alleged Chinese state-backed hackers to probe US non-governmental organizations and think tanks.
IISS researchers ranked countries on a range of cyber capabilities, from the strength of their digital economies and the maturity of their intelligence and security functions, to the quality of the integration of cyber facilities into military operations.
China, like Russia, has proven expertise in offensive cyber operations – waging online espionage, intellectual property theft and disinformation campaigns against the United States and its allies. But both countries have been held back by relatively loose cybersecurity compared to their competitors, according to the IISS.
As a result, only the United States is ranked as a “leading” cyberpower by the think tank, with China, Russia, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, France and Israel in second place. . The third level includes India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea, Iran, and Vietnam.
Greg Austin, an expert on cyber, space and future conflict at IISS, said that media reports focusing only on the positives of China’s digital advances – such as its aspirations to be a leader world of artificial intelligence – had contributed to an “exaggeration” of perception of its cyber prowess. “In all respects, the development of cybersecurity skills in China is in a worse position than in many other countries,” he said.
According to the report, Beijing’s focus on “content security” – limiting politically subversive information on its national internet – may have diminished its focus on monitoring the physical networks that carry it. The IISS also suggested that China’s cyber intelligence analysis was “less mature” than that of Five Eyes’ intelligence allies (the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). Zealand) because it was motivated by an ideology and “more and more linked to. . . the political objectives ”of the leaders of the communist parties.
Austin said the information age is reshaping global dynamics so that traditionally powerful countries such as India and Japan have started to fall behind in the third tier of cyber operators, while more small ones like Israel and Australia had developed advanced cyber skills that had propelled them into the second level.
According to the IISS, what sets the United States apart at the forefront is its unparalleled digital-industrial base, its cryptographic expertise and its ability to execute “sophisticated and surgical” cyber attacks against adversaries. Unlike opponents such as China and Russia, the United States has also benefited from close alliances with other cyberpowers, including its Five Eyes partners.
However, the United States and its allies were increasingly at risk of ransomware attack – such as that against Colonial Pipeline and the Irish health services last month – by Russian hackers who are not led by the State but whose activities are apparently tolerated by the authorities.
Robert Hannigan, a former director of UK intelligence agency GCHQ and now a senior executive at cybersecurity firm BlueVoyant, said he agreed with many of the IISS findings, but wondered how Beijing and Moscow would be held back by weak cyber defenses.
“While it is true that cybersecurity is less well developed in Russia and China, they need it less than open Western economies,” Hannigan said. “The threat is not symmetrical: Western economies are besieged by groups of cybercriminals based and tolerated or authorized by Russia – the reverse is not true. “
He added that while Russia knew that the West would not blindly target civilian critical infrastructure in destructive ways, Russian agencies “have a right to be reckless.” “This in turn requires higher levels of cybersecurity in the west,” he said.