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.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

November 24, 2010

4 Min Read

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. Later that day, Dmitri Alperovitch, McAfee's vice president of threat research -- one of the experts originally quoted over the alleged "15% of the Internet was hijacked by China" episode -- said that National Defense and other outlets had misinterpreted his original assessment.

"There is absolutely no proof that this was an intentional attack. Routing hijacks happen fairly frequently and most of them are accidental [in] nature," he clarified.

Likewise, in a later, more in-depth analysis, Arbor Networks' Craig Labovitz reported seeing nothing characteristic of an actual hijack. Of course, that doesn't mean that China didn't actually attack the U.S., hiding the rerouting of a few machines with a smokescreen of "thousands of bogus routes," he said. "Or maybe, of course, this was just a typo in a configuration file."

Who can tell? In fact, no one, and that gets to a fundamental problem with the Internet: We often don't know if someone is trying to attack us, and when we do think it's the case, the ease of spoofing packets means that we'll probably never trace attacks back to the real perpetrators.

Furthermore, concern over the potential Chinese attack is misplaced, said Labovitz, since "inadvertent BGP route leaks and intentional hijacks have been part and parcel of Internet routing for the last 20 years," referring to the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) used to exchange routing information between routers.

Accordingly, rather than interpreting esoteric Internet traffic routing patterns as signs of malfeasance, he suggests getting to the root of the issue. Such as tackling security issues in BGP, encouraging adoption of the DNS Security Extensions (DNSSEC) to protect against data spoofing, and focusing efforts on blocking distributed denial-of-service attacks.

Addressing core Internet security concerns isn't as sexy as screaming about Chinese attacks. But in both the short and long run, fixing what's broken with core aspects of the Internet would prevent having to worry in the first place, or potentially misplaced military attacks. Just think how much more secure we'd feel.

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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