Old battlegrounds move to cyberspace

By Simon Hendery

Computer virus highlights growing role of internet in geopolitical skirmishes

The latest security threat to hit the internet has provided further evidence that cyberspace is the new battleground between hostile nations, says Microsoft's chief technologist in New Zealand.

Microsoft rushed out a software patch last week to help protect hundreds of millions of computer users from the "trojan" virus that has been targeting an ageing version of the company's Internet Explorer web browser.

While trojans - named for the way they covertly invade a computer operating system before launching an attack - are nothing new, this latest version has become infamous for the international political ructions that have blown up around it.

Google said the malicious software was behind "a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China" and threatened to pull its search engine and entire business out of the country, or at the very least stop its policy of bowing to Chinese officials' demands that it censor search results in China.

Google said the attacks had attempted to access email accounts belonging to Chinese human rights activists, but said only two attacks had been successful.

It also said dozens of accounts linked to human rights activists "appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties".

The malware has also infiltrated hundreds of websites, although there have been no reports of sites in New Zealand being compromised.

The Chinese Government has hit back at Google's claims, denying any involvement with the malware and accusing the search giant of lying and interfering in state affairs.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama also waded into the geopolitical fracas last week, with Clinton calling on the Chinese Government to investigate the attacks and Obama saying he was "troubled" by the incident.

Brett Roberts, Microsoft New Zealand's chief technology officer, said while there was nothing particularly special about the technology behind this security threat, the latest incident highlighted the growing significance of the internet as a potential battleground for opposing governments.

"If you take one step back and take China out of the equation, it's pretty safe to say that every government on the planet sees the internet as being an opportunity for interacting in a negative manner with those who they may see as not being their friends," he said.

"And they probably see a risk, in some ways, of other governments doing the same to them. If anything, it's another battlefield. It is a very safe bet that every government is investing in some way into looking at how they can use that new battlefield to their advantage, or not have it used against them."

Roberts says the latest incident showed it was important for computer users to use up-to-date software, and to install security updates and patches for software and operating systems when they were released by software companies.

The latest attacks hit PCs running Microsoft's Windows XP operating system and version 6 of Internet Explorer, two aging pieces of software which have now been updated.

Microsoft has released version 8 of Internet Explorer, and also two subsequent new operating systems, Vista and Windows 7.

However, Windows XP continues to be widely used, particularly by business.

Its popularity is expected to reduce by the end of this year as a growing number of organisations upgrade to Windows 7, and at the same time ditch Internet Explorer 6 for the new version 8.

Roberts, meanwhile, warns security issues will continue to haunt the internet.

"My gut feel would be that the information you see coming out [about this current Google/China situation is that] we're only seeing a tiny percentage of the total information and I think it's one of those things that will play out over time. Watch this space."

- NZ Herald

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