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11/24/2010
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Schwartz On Security: China's Internet Hijacking Misread

Core Internet security concerns aren't as sexy as hyping Chinese attacks, but concern over the potential assault is misplaced and distracts from the need to fix what's really broken.

If China launches online attacks against the United States -- for example, diverting 15% of the Internet for a period of 18 minutes -- that demands a response.

Of course, a recent Congressional commission report accused China of having "'hijacked' massive volumes of Internet traffic," including government, military and leading private companies' websites, routing them through Chinese-controlled servers on April 8, 2010.

Accordingly, with the U.S. government bolstering its Cyber Warfare Command, one pertinent question is: What's the threshold for when the U.S. should launch a "cyber strike back?"

Thankfully, no such strike was launched against China, as evidence of the country's malfeasance quickly proved sketchy at best -- and a case of misplaced fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) at worst. Or in the words of the related Time Magazine story, "Everybody Panic!"

Experts shouting "FUD" back, however, thankfully hit the scene last Wednesday. In particular, Bob Poortinga, a senior analyst at high-technology engineering firm Technology Service Corp, estimated that at best, 1% of 2% of network prefixes -- not traffic -- had been "hijacked" globally and likely at a much lower level in the United States.

"My concern is that this 'report' will be presented to the U.S. Congress without being refuted by experts in the know," he said in a post to the North American Network Operators Group mailing list, in response to a related story in National Defense magazine. "My request is that someone with some gravitas please issue a press release setting the facts straight on this matter."

On Friday, Craig Labovitz, chief scientist at network security firm Arbor Networks, came to the rescue. "While traffic may have exhibited a modest increase to the Chinese Internet provider, I'd estimate diverted traffic never topped a handful of Gbps," he said in a blog post. "And in an Internet quickly approaching 80 to 100 Tbps, 1 to 3 Gbps of traffic is far from 15% (it is much closer to 0.015%)." In other words, news reports misstated the scale of the event by a factor of 1,000, using a metric -- traffic volumes -- that Labovitz called imprecise, at best.

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