On the Cyber Warpath

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On the Cyber Warpath

An intelligence specialist considers the implications of the recent attacks by Chinese hackers on the website of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Cyber attacks by Chinese government agencies or citizens have become so rampant that, except when critical sectors such as the US defence establishment are targeted, the world can manage little more than a shrug, as if this were the natural state of things.

The latest instance of Chinese hackers targeting websites abroad involved the Melbourne International Film Festival. The festival was attacked over two recent weekends because of its organisers’ refusal to yield to pressure by Beijing not to screen ’10 Conditions of Love,’ a documentary about exiled Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, and because Canberra had granted Kadeer a visa so that she could attend the screening. (Beijing has called Kadeer, now living in exile in the United States, a ‘splittist’ and a leader of Uighur ‘terrorist’ groups in Xinjiang, charges that she denies and that don’t stand up to scrutiny.)

While the first attack only involved alterations to content of the festival’s website (displaying the Chinese flag and anti-Kadeer slogans, as well as spam), the second forced the managers of the site to shut down online ticket sales. Richard Moore, MIFF’s director, said that as 65 percent of ticket sales are done online, the attack would have serious financial repercussions on the festival.

At this point, it’s impossible to determine whether the attacks were orchestrated by the Chinese security apparatus or ultranationalist Chinese, with or without state sanction. Irrespective of this, the latest attack – and many others before it – represent political and economic warfare. While Beijing certainly retains the right to express its displeasure, via diplomatic channels, at the policy decisions of other states, it’s unacceptable for it to engage in, or at the least condone, economic warfare against market economies that have contributed to its economic boom.

In light of this, private companies and countries that have been targets of Chinese economic warfare should not only challenge Chinese authorities to prevent such attacks in future, but also take legal action against the perpetrators.

China is one of the 187 members of Interpol, the global law enforcement agency. One of Interpol’s mandates, as stated on its website, is fighting financial and high-tech crimes, which include computer virus attacks and cyber-terrorism. As Beijing has openly acknowledged, China benefited tremendously from cooperation with Interpol during the Olympic Games last year, where the agency screened every visitor’s passport through its vast database.

But membership in multilateral organisations does not just confer benefits upon its members; it also carries responsibilities. One such responsibility for Beijing is to punish perpetrators of cyber crime and prevent such attacks from recurring.

As it modernises and continues to develop political and economic relations with the community of nations, China must demonstrate that it is a country run by the rule of law, where the rights of individuals, governments and corporations are protected, both at home and abroad. Until it does this, China will never win foreign confidence in its ability to address crime through rigorous law rather than the arbitrariness of ideology. Cyber crime would be a good area for Beijing to show its willingness to fight crime and fulfil its role as a member of Interpol and responsible global actor.

Whether we like it or not, Beijing has every right to use the appropriate channels to reprimand states that do not act according to its will, as it did by summoning Australia’s ambassador to China over the Kadeer visa. But to resort to disruptive economic warfare against private institutions or film festivals that present documentaries it disagrees with is not only childish – it goes against the very principles of global trade. And, equally important, it undermines freedom of expression in other countries.

It’s time the world stopped reacting with complacency to Chinese bullying, state-sanctioned or otherwise.