State-sponsored cyber espionage a problem for western allies

“The next war won’t be fought with bullets and guns”

If the western allies can’t share information due to potential threats to their individual data systems from state-sponsored espionage, the world is in big trouble, a U.S. cybersecurity expert says.

The issue of state-controlled companies stealing government or corporate information remains in the spotlight following the December arrest in Vancouver of the chief financial officer of China-based global telecommunications giant Huawei. Meng Wanzhou was detained by Canadian officials following an extradition request from the United States. She remains on bail as hearings continue.

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It was Meng’s arrest that focused attention on Huawei and alleged connections between the company and Chinese government intelligence services. Her father, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, is believed to have been a former technology specialist in China’s People’s Republican Army.

There are fears among members of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence partnership – the United States, Canada, the U.K., New Zealand and Australia – that use of Huawei’s 5G, or fifth generation, telecommunications technology, could compromise data on infrastructure systems. It’s feared Huawei could hand over information gleaned from its products to Chinese authorities.

Cybersecurity expert Eric O’Neill said such an eventuality is possible as countries look to the future.

“The next war won’t be fought with bullets and guns,” he said.

Instead, O’Neill said, it will be fought with information – with data attacks on systems such as water, electricity and other networks.

He said the only thing saving the U.S. electricity grid from complete vulnerability to cyberattacks is that it remains decentralized – as is much of Canada’s.

He said the spread of Chinese companies’ technology around the world is a method Beijing uses to gather intelligence.

“Stealing information has always been a goal of the Chinese government,” O’Neill said. “The United States has been caught doing this too.”

He called it worrisome that Chinese-produced devices are being installed in technological infrastructure around the world.

U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell has told German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier in a letter it should not use untrusted companies to build its 5G systems.

The letter reportedly specifically names Huawei.

“It’s the worst-case scenario,” he said. “If we can’t share information, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

And, he explained, if allies cannot rely on their technology systems, they certainly couldn’t trust each other for data sharing if those systems are compromised through infiltration by espionage agencies.

“Cybersecurity can’t just be building a perimeter and putting up a defense,” “O’Neill said. “Cybersecurity needs to be offense. You need to be cyberspy hunters.”

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