WASHINGTON, February 21 (By Carl Schreck for RIA Novosti) – A report linking the Chinese military to cyberattacks on US businesses and government agencies has garnered global headlines this week, arguably stealing the cybertheft limelight from another country American officials cite as a significant threat to US network security: Russia.
“The Russian operations appear to be much more sophisticated and professionally run than the Chinese, since we only ever seem to catch China,” cybersecurity expert Jeffrey Carr told RIA Novosti on Thursday.
The report released this week by the Virginia-based computer security firm Mandiant, traced members of elite Chinese hacking groups to the vicinity of a Chinese military building on the outskirts of Shanghai.
A day after the study was first reported in The New York Times on Tuesday, the White House released its new strategy to protect US businesses from industrial espionage and cyber theft.
But while China has been the focus of Washington officials’ vows to protect US interests from cyberthreats, such attacks emanating from Russia are as advanced—if not as plentiful—as those carried out by Chinese cyberwarriors, Internet security expert Scott Borg told NBC News this week.
“The Russians are technically advanced,” Borg said in the interview. “The Chinese just have more people dedicated to the effort, by a wide margin. They are not as innovative or creative as the US and Russia. China has the greatest quantity, if not quality.”
Russian cyberespionage tends to focus on “military espionage and operations,” Borg, head of the nonprofit US Cyber Consequences Unit, which advises the US government and businesses on cybersecurity, told NBC News.
“China’s main focus is stealing technology,” he said. “These things are quite separate. You use different tools on critical infrastructure than you use for military espionage and different tools again on stealing technology.”
In a briefing Wednesday on US President Barack Obama’s strategy to counter cyberespionage, US Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats called China “a country that does pose serious problems,” but said other countries raise concerns as well.
“We’ve had similar conversations with Russia and other countries,” Hormats said.
US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said last year that “entities within” China and Russia “are responsible for extensive illicit intrusions into US computer networks and theft of intellectual property.”
Figuring out who exactly is behind cyberattacks is exceedingly difficult, said James Hendler, professor of computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.
“We know Russia has significant capability … but a problem in the cyberworld is that it’s very hard to know who’s really doing what,” Hendler told RIA Novosti on Thursday.
Russian hackers were widely alleged to have been behind cyberattacks against the governments of neighboring Estonia and Georgia in 2007 and 2008, though the Russian government has denied any involvement in those attacks.
The United States, meanwhile, is believed to have carried out targeted cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear program, while Washington accused Tehran of complicity in a cyberattack on the US banking system last month.
Countries including Israel, France, Ukraine, Turkey and Taiwan also have considerable cyberwar capabilities, Carr, head of the cybersecurity firm Taia Global told RIA Novosti.
“Perhaps a little too much attention is being paid to China,” Carr said.
Washington and Moscow announced in 2011 that they were expanding Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia to include cyberspace in order to “help our two governments better communicate about small and large-scale threats to our networks, facilitate better collaboration in responding to those threats, and reduce the prospect of escalation in response to crisis incidents.”
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, told RIA Novosti on Thursday that the Obama administration is “working with the Russian government to bolster our cyber cooperation and risk reduction efforts, including confidence-building measures in cyberspace.”
“We are committed to working with our Russian counterparts to improve our collective cybersecurity and addressing cybercrime and other common threats,” Hayden said.
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The clash of Russian and Western interests has given rise to a geopolitical battle. German politicians are trying to leave all doors and windows open for dialogue with Russia. Moscow does acknowledge this, and Germany is probably the only country with which it is ready to discuss European security.