The term “artifact” has at least two meanings: From a technical perspective, an artifact is an unintentional pattern in data, arising from processes of collection and management. From a cultural perspective, an artifact is a designed object, with a social and material history. -Yanni Loukissas
As I laid out in the first part of this series, a large component of the Chinese educational and S&T system is designed to acquire, via distributed methods, foreign S&T. This underlying concept behind this is stigmergy. James Dunnigan outlines this further in an article on Strategy Page written in 2005. It is further elaborated on by Nicholas Eftimiades in Chinese Intelligence Operations.
My entry here into this madness was while I was busily trying to identify the hackers behind Team XeYe. Initially, I was tasked with attempting to identify the unusual nature of a company that I’ll identify as CompanyX. This company was busy developing a reputation with some very highly qualified individuals who were accredited within the US as Chinese Computer Emergency Response Team (CN-CERT) professionals and Microsoft PKI certificate engineers.
As noted in part one, this was all part of a degree program and then hiring within that infrastructure. The lead for this team then went from the US back to the PRC to help build the data diodes the Chinese use for the Great Firewall of China, more formally known as the “Golden Shield Project.” He worked for Topsec and Venustech, assisting both in setting up the necessary infrastructure for CN-CERT teams.
Once he finished with this, he started his own company with five of his good buddies. Out of the five, two were officers in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and all were hackers. The lead was able to use his knowledge of PKIs to set up certificate collision attacks against Microsoft certs and pwned the shit out of them. CompanyX was set up to be a boutique firm that catered to the information security crowd in China. He had some big names for various contracts to assist them with information security.
However, lets be clear when the PRC says “information security” within their paradigm. To the Chinese, this is both an offensive and defensive role. To increase their security, Chinese information security experts act as hackers. Much as “white hats” in the US function as “grey hats” when they finish their work day, information security experts in the PRC don’t have to actually wait until the end of their work day. This is completely sanctioned behavior and falls well within the concept of qingbao. The design behind the PRC information security doctrine was developed separately and completely independently of the US influence on information security. Recall that the educational process in the PRC strips nearly all Western-influenced cultural attributes but knowledge.
The only need for an information security professional in China to go to the US for some kind of certification is to gain credibility within the global audience forum for their skill set. It’s a voucher that the US has accredited them for a process. The Chinese use their socially engineered students and provide them with the capability to work effectively and the resources to generate results.
The Comp Sci curriculum in China is set at a very high bar because the Chinese value this skill. This is well documented by Timothy Thomas (a favorite author) at the Foreign Military Studies Office. You can see this in “China’s 47 Electronic Strategies” and again in a brief he provided to Dartmouth located here. It can be summed up in a Chinese publication on Information Operations. “Using the comparison of a weak mouse operating against a huge cat, Li asked “How do mice hang a bell around a cat’s neck?” and answered stating it was necessary to “Entice the cat to wear the bell himself (that is, put it on himself).” Thus sums up how the PRC believes it can win against the U.S.
To understand why its clear that these guys weren’t just information security professionals, you have to understand the national information system architecture of the PRC. I’m going to describe an analogy for what this looks like. China accesses information across the globe much as we do. They access it via satellite or a series of undersea pipes. However, once data hits the Chinese network topology it is essentially a siege wall. This wall is a composite: the outside wall (or what we call front-facing) and the inside wall (or what we call back facing).
Information entering the PRC’s topology is accepted into the first wall and filtered via a series of networked data diodes that stream packets to firmware and software that evaluate the packets in a kind of “dirty word” search system compromised of many algorithms. The ones that make it are then transferred to the second wall (the back facing wall) were the content is evaluated further largely by content scrapers, and then approved by humans under the guise of Chinese “morality.” Domestic traffic only leaves China under approval by…you guessed it…CN-CERT centers. This a short and incomplete summary of the Golden Shield Project.
The line fed to the global public is that this ensures the safety of users who access .cn sites. Except, when you turn this on its head, it means that they censor what information may or may not leave China. There are many organizations in China that are CN-CERT approved. Topsec and Venustech, for instance. However, ultimately, that approval comes from a series of authorities that stem from the Communist Party and MOST. Remember MOST? So, to tie this little bit together, if you work for CompanyX, the white propaganda you provide your clientèle is that you function as a representative of a security company and assist in building network infrastructure to enhance asset security. That is a real function.
However, the second part of your real function is to assess and undermine the vulnerabilities of the network architecture you are building, and catalog the vulnerabilities and exploit those vulnerabilities for valuable data. Lets put two and two together here. If you are US Company B and you have been hacked and your information security team advises you that the attack originated in China, how is it possible a group of common PRC citizens accomplished this? If the PRC have this Golden Shield, how did these citizens magically make it through, when even dissidents can’t communicate with the US? The answer is: They didn’t. You were attacked by an entity that is sanctioned to do this. It doesn’t matter that the entity ends in .com. The PRC is a command economy. There is no real .com.
Once I was able to reconstruct the efforts by XeYe Team and their actual pattern of life online, and demonstrably show a relationship by the team to the PLA, the people who initially pitched this curve ball at me perked up. They were fairly convinced that I had collected enough derog on CompanyX so their next questions were really to my bosses (yes, apparently I have many). To paraphrase, they said “this is really awesome and it was just kind of a test to see what we would get.” Kinda like, “that’s cool an all…” Their next question was: “Can you do this for everything? Can you show the whole espionage process?” I shook my head vigorously from side to side. My bosses shook their head vigorously from north to south. Pretty easy to figure out who won that argument.
Almost two years later, a heretofore unknown contractor makes off with the results of this work in a brief-of-a-brief-of-a-brief format (don’t get me started, I already earned my Powerpoint tab) and delivers it first to the Chinese, and then to a pretty terrible journalist, catapulting them both to stardom.
It’s a little bit harder to get into Project 973 sites now. They aren’t quite published so openly. You need to login and supply a password. Some archives are missing. Certain doctrinal documents on five and 20 year plans are no longer published so openly. That’s cool, though. He’s a hero for exposing all that evil NSA stuff that the NSA never broke the law to do. Never mind that the bull in the china shop was quietly giggling in the corner at this exciting turn of events.
So there you have it. XeYe Team is really CompanyX and works both sides of the proverbial coin. So we are left with, “What about all those damn het-net references, Coriolanus?” Well, see…that’s where the future lies, and its the final part of all this and ties it into a nice big bow. So you’ll have to wait for the next part of this. Same bat-time, same bat-channel.
As I was saying, she stumbled upon a solution whereby nearly ninety-nine percent of the test subjects accepted the program provided they were given a choice – even if they were only aware of it at a near-unconscious level. While this solution worked, it was fundamentally flawed, creating the otherwise contradictory systemic anomaly, that, if left unchecked, might threaten the system itself. Ergo, those who refused the program, while a minority, would constitute an escalating probability of disaster. -The Architect, Matrix Reloaded
(Featured Image Courtesy: VOANews)