Thursday, February 12, 2009

Chinese Hackers Attack U.S. Computers

by Jeff Bliss

Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Chinese government and freelance hackers are the primary culprits behind as many as several hundred daily attacks against U.S. government, electric-utility and financial computer networks, a senior congressman said.

“Sophisticated hackers could really wreak havoc on our financial systems if they were successful,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson said in an interview. The threat is “primarily from China.”

While cyber plots to disrupt U.S. computer networks have been thwarted, significant vulnerabilities exist, said Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat.

Many of these problems will be detailed in a 60-day review the Obama administration on Feb. 9 said it would conduct on government cyber-security efforts, Thompson said. President Barack Obama also has said he would appoint a computer-security chief who will report directly to him, a move Thompson supports.

Currency trading is among the financial networks targeted by hackers, Thompson said. An attack would be particularly damaging in light of the financial system’s troubled state, he said.

He said electric utilities’ networks also have several points of weakness.

“We were provided alarming data on the vulnerability of our electrical grid in this country,” he said.

China’s Denial

Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in the U.S., denied that the Chinese government was attacking U.S. computer systems.

“Allegations that the Chinese government is behind cyber attacks against the U.S. computer networks are totally unwarranted and misleading for the America public,” Wang said in an e-mailed statement.

Wang said the Chinese government is “cracking down” on computer hacking and other cyber crimes.

Thompson, during the interview, touched on topics ranging from immigration legislation to terrorism. He called a “cheap shot” former Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertion in an interview Feb. 3 that Obama’s policies make a terrorist attack more likely.

“There’s nothing that I’ve been briefed on in a classified setting that gives me any concern that what the vice president said is true,” he said. “It’s easy to say something is going to happen, so if it happens two years from now, you say, ‘I told you so.’”

Monitoring Threat

Thompson also said that U.S. authorities are monitoring about 20 Somali-American youths who disappeared from Minneapolis last year. The youths are suspected of traveling to Somalia and linking up with al-Shabab, a militant Islamic organization that the State Department considers a terrorist organization, according to Newsweek.

“We know who the suspects are, we pretty much have them under observation, and at this point nothing has risen to the level of bringing these people in,” Thompson said.

Al-Shahab is linked to al-Qaeda, and the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security investigated the threat of an attack by the group around the time of Obama’s inauguration last month.

Immigration Issues

On immigration, Thompson said it’s possible that Congress in the next two years will pass legislation overhauling U.S. immigration law, tightening border security and establishing a temporary worker program. The financial crisis has made it difficult for lawmakers to focus on the measure, and it isn’t the “hot button” that it was before last year’s elections, he said.

In the meantime, Thompson said, he is urging the administration to develop a comprehensive plan for securing U.S. borders against illegal aliens, including a decision on whether to continue building a 670-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Thompson, who voted against building the fence, favors using a combination of Border Patrol agents, fencing, cameras, sensors and radar.

He has been critical of progress on the system, known as Secure Border Initiative Net, which has suffered delays because of technical glitches.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Bliss in Washington

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