Chinese information warfare: ‘The Panda That Eats, Shoots, and Leaves’

The following is an excerpt from “iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age.”

No other nation today poses a greater danger to American national security than China, a state engaged in an unprecedented campaign of information warfare using both massive cyberattacks and influence operations aimed at diminishing what Beijing regards as its most important strategic enemy. Yet American leaders remain lost in a Cold War political gambit that once saw China as covert ally against the Soviet Union. Today the Soviet Union is gone but China remains a nuclear-armed communist dictatorship on the march.

From an information warfare stance, China today has emerged as one of the most powerful and capable threats facing the United States. By May 2016 American intelligence agencies had made a startling discovery: Chinese cyber-intelligence services had developed technology and network penetration skills allowing them to control the results of Internet searches conducted on Google’s world-famous search engine. By controlling one of the most significant Information Age technologies used in refining and searching the massive ocean of data on the Internet, the Chinese are now able to control and influence what millions of users in China see when they search using Google. Thus a search for the name Tiananmen — the main square in Beijing, where Chinese troops murdered unarmed pro-democracy protesters in June 1989 — can be spoofed by Chinese information warriors into returning results in which the first several pages make no reference to the massacre. The breakthrough is similar to the kind of totalitarian control outlined in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four with the creation of a fictional language called Newspeak, which was used to serve the total dominance of the state.

Technically, what China did was a major breakthrough in search engine optimization — the art and science of making sites appear higher or lower in search listings. The feat requires a high degree of technical skill to pull off and would require learning the secret algorithms — self-contained, step- by-step computer search operations — used by Google. The intelligence suggests that Chinese cyberwarfare researchers had made a quantum leap in capability by actually gaining access to Google secrets and machines and adjusting the algorithms to make sure searches are produced according to Chinese information warfare goals.

Those goals are to promote continued rule by the Communist Party of China and to attack and defeat China’s main enemy: the United States of America. Thus Chinese information warriors can continue the lies and deception that China poses no threat, is a peaceful country, does not seek to take over surrounding waterways, and does not abuse human rights, and that its large-scale military buildup is for purely defensive purposes.

The dominant battle space for Chinese information warfare programs is the Internet, using a combination of covert and overt means. The most visible means of attack can be seen in Chinese media that is used to control the population domestically, and to attack the United States, Japan, and other declared enemies through an international network of state-controlled propaganda outlets, both print and digital, that have proved highly effective in influencing foreign audiences. One of the flagship party mouthpieces is China Daily, an English-language newspaper with a global circulation of 900,000 and an estimated 43 million readers online. China Central Television, known as CCTV, operates a twenty- four-hour cable news outlet as well to support its information warfare campaigns.

One of the most damaging Chinese cyberattacks against the United States was the theft of federal employee records in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2015 . That attack took place after an earlier private sector cyber strike against millions of medical records held by the major health-care provider Anthem.

The data theft included the massive loss of 21.5 million records. Worse, the OPM delicately announced that among those millions of stolen records was “an incident” affecting background investigation records, among some of the most sensitive information in the government’s possession used in determining eligibility for access to classified information.

It was a security disaster for the millions who held security clearances and were now vulnerable to Chinese intelligence targeting, recruitment, and neutralization. A senior U.S. intelligence official briefed on the classified details of the OPM told me that the early technical intelligence analysis of the data theft revealed that it was part of a PLA military hacking operation. “It is fair to say this is a Chinese PLA cyberattack,” said the official, adding that the conclusion was based on an analysis of the software operating methods used to gain access to the government network.

The threat was not theoretical. In the months after the OPM breach, several former intelligence officials began receiving threatening telephone calls that authorities believe stemmed from the compromised information obtained from OPM background investigation data hacked by the Chinese.

By the summer of 2015, the group of sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies — including the CIA, DIA, and NSA — that make up what is called the intelligence community weighed in on the growing threat of strategic cyberattacks against the United States. In their top-secret National Intelligence Estimate, the consensus was that as long as the continued policy of not responding remained in place, the United States would continue to be victimized by increasingly damaging cyberattacks on both government and private sector networks. A strong reaction was essential.

Chinese cyberattacks have been massive and have inflicted extreme damage to U.S. national security.

Among the exotic Chinese information weapons Beijing plans to use in a future conflict are holographic projectors and laser-glaring arms that can present large unusual images in the skies above enemy forces that would simulate hallucinations among troops on the ground, according to one recent translated Chinese military report on the subject.

Traditional propaganda also will be used, including “public opinion propaganda and PSYWAR weapons to execute psychological attacks against the enemy, so as to disrupt the enemy command decision making, disintegrate the enemy troop morale, and shake the enemy’s will to wage war,” according to recently translated Chinese military writings.

As Jake Bebber, a Navy officer posted with the U.S. Cyber Command, put it, the threat from China and its strategy of seeking the destruction of the United States have been misunderstood by the U.S. government and military. “Chinaseeks to win without fighting, so the real danger is not that America will find itself in a war with China, but that America will find itself the loser without a shot being fired,” he wrote in a report for the Center for International Maritime Security.

In the future, an American president must come to the realization that the decades-long policy of appeasing and accommodating the communist regime in Beijing is not just contrary to American national interests, but is in fact advancing a new strategic threat to free and democratic systems everywhere.

China today employs strategic information warfare to defeat its main rival: the United States. China’s demands to control social media and the Internet are part of its information warfare against America and must be resisted if free and open societies and the information technology they widely use are to prevail. China remains the most dangerous strategic threat to America — both informationally and militarily.

• Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor of The Washington Free Beacon. This article is excerpted from a chapter of his book, “iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age.”

Read more at The Washington Times.

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