The US, and may be many more countries, is facing a grave cyber risk from an army of Chinese hackers.
According to a report of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, China has developed a band of nearly two lakh cyberspies, including 30,000 army cyberspies, to conduct a "long-term, sophisticated computer network exploitation campaign" against the US government to gain illegal access to sensitive military, technological and economic data.
American news website The Daily Beast quoted a senior FBI analyst saying Chinese hackers had already launched 90,000 attacks a year against the US defense department computers.
According to the report, the threat from China "poses the largest single threat to the United States for cyberterrorism and has the potential to destroy vital infrastructure, interrupt banking and commerce, and compromise sensitive military and defense databases".
Although unofficial, every country has a developed cyber warfare system that tries to access sensitive data from the network systems of other countries. However, nothing could match China's magnitude and capability in this, The Daily Beast said.
According to the FBI analyst, a massive Chinese cyberattack during wartimes could "be in the magnitude of a weapon of mass destruction", adding that it would do substantial damage to the US economy, telecommunications, electricity grid, and even military responses to threats.
The report said the band of cyberspies scan network grids thousands of times in a minute to look for vulnerable spots in the network grid. Once an entry is gained,
The Chinese hackers, The Daily Beast said quoting the FBI analyst, leave no digital trace behind of their handiwork and make an exit within 20 minutes after gathering information.
Although the FBI report has not established any links between the hackers and the Chinese government, it has said that the cyberspies cannot conduct such operations without support from the state authorities. Also, the hackers are not interested in gathering data about credit cards or bank accounts, but about defence strategies and intelligence gathered by American spy agencies.
While some attacks place malicious computer code to gain entry into networks, some attacks plant embedded covert programmes into government networks. These codes search for classified defence files and forward them to China.
The Chinese are "simply the most sophisticated" in using sophisticated "rootkit" programmes to hide their presence, the FBI analyst said.
The damage is already done in many sectors. In 2009, companies in oil and gas, banking, aerospace, and telecommunications sectors faced costly problems with Chinese-implanted "malware".
The attacks on US defence department are increasing by the year -- 44,000 in 2007 to 55,000 in 2008, and 90,000 in 2009.
Homeland Security's $1.8 billion computer network was penetrated by Chinese cyberwarriors in 2007, and an unknown amount of information was copied to a secure Chinese web site.
Even the Pentagon was breached in 2007 and again in early 2009, despite what it considered foolproof Titan Rain security patches.
In 2009, The Daily Beast said, the Chinese cyberspies had intruded into the Pentagon's Joint Strike Fighter project and managed to copy information on the design and electronics system of the project.
US security agencies suspect that the detected attacks may only be a small percent of the total number of Chinese intrusions.
Image: An internet cafe in Shanghai, China | Photograph: Nir Elias / Reuters