Shadowy Business!

shadowy business!I had an odd dream last night. Something like a very G rated, kid friendly version of Mission Impossible. The dream left me musing about cyber-espionage and China. So I sat down to write this post and my made-in-China netbook wouldn’t boot. How’s that for coincidence!?

There was news recently about Canada needing to replace a super secure federal network that was irreparably compromised by cyber-attacks out of China in 2010. A US intelligence committee head warned that we should not use the Chinese company Huawei for this work. Harper is not saying whether the national security exemption will exclude Huawei from this government work. Huawei currently provides high-speed networks for Bell Canada, Telus, SaskTel and Wind Mobile. The US committee head suggested that Huawei might embed back doors and bugs into networks and even consumer hardware.

What if, eh? I have a Huawei tablet with front and rear cameras. Does it watch me while I use it? How about our modems and routers? People probably don’t often think of modems and routers as computers, but they are. They have an operating system and data storage capacity and obvious networking capability. If some kind of malware was built in at the factory, as has happened with PCs, attempts to make good use of a router’s security features could be for naught! Could surveillance on the scale of consumer electronics be done?

There would be a massive amount of data to mine for the relatively few crumbs of industrially or politically useful stuff that might be found. It would take something on the scale of the NSA’s new surveillance centre to handle all the data. I suppose if the NSA can build such a thing, so could China.

All that data going to Beijing would be sure to raise some eyebrows though. How would you hide it? Maybe buy the US’s second largest theatre chain. Might that holding’s online traffic be big enough to obscure traffic from a very large and secret botnet?

Maybe add some energy company purchases, such as the CNOOC/Nexen deal. Surely that would give China plenty of capacity to handle network traffic within North America and plenty of reason for traffic back to Beijing. They’d also be that much more embedded in Canada’s energy infrastructure, an infrastructure already threatened and perhaps compromised by cyber-attacks.

Meanwhile our federal government is cozying up to China with a trade deal that some describe as a sell-out. CSIS has warned that China holds influence over Canadian politicians of all levels. If this deal is as bad as some suggest, one can’t help wondering whether that influence might include our PM.

If the digital systems our society runs on were compromised at the level of their BIOSes, how would we know? After all, Nortel was compromised for years and apparently no one knew till after the company fell apart. If a tech company like Nortel didn’t know, how are most PC and cell phone users to know? If it was happening and we did find out, what would we do? Faced with such questions, what is the line between caution and tin-hat paranoia?

I have few answers to these questions, but it’s certain that trying to get a handle on it could be an interesting game of cat and mouse!

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