Viewers of China Central Television got an unusual glimpse last month of that nation's offensive cyber- capabilities: A video clip showed a military computer program on which an unseen user selects a "target" — in this case, a Falun Gong website based in Alabama — and hits a button labeled "attack."
The video amounted to just six seconds in a state media documentary called "The Cyber Storm Has Arrived!" But it offered an uncommonly candid depiction of cyber-weaponry developed by a country that is routinely accused of mounting attacks and just as routinely issues fervent denials.
Later in the documentary, Col. Du Wenlong, a researcher at China's top military research institute, argues that the country's ability to attack and to defend its networks "must be interwoven." He adds, "To keep up with the pace of virtual technology, we must increase our fighting ability."
For more than a decade, experts say, China has had a cyber-warfare capability, and in recent years, the nation has seemed intent on developing it — especially now that the United States has launched a Cyber Command to coordinate the military's offensive and defensive capabilities.
The documentary featuring the video clip includes images of the Pentagon, the White House and U.S. jets bombing targets as the narrator describes China as behind its adversaries in developing cyber-capabilities. Du describes several types of attacks that might be deployed in cyber-warfare, including "logic bombs," software implanted in an adversary's network that later can be triggered to cause crucial systems to crash.
Western experts who viewed the clip, first reported by the Epoch Times, a news service affiliated with the Falun Gong, said the military computer program featured in the video was not especially sophisticated and probably does not represent the state-of-the-art of Chinese cyber-capabilities. Yet they were struck by what appeared to be the first and most public indication from a government source that China has the ability and the intention to hit adversaries, even when their computer servers are based in other countries.
"Their official line is they're innocent, 'Why are you blaming us?' " said James Lewis, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' technology and public policy program. In the clip, he said, "they were caught with their pants down."
Chinese officials have long insisted that their own national laws prohibit any disruption of computer networks. Yet when major cyber-attacks have happened — against Google, Lockheed Martin, the Dalai Lama, the office of the German chancellor — U.S. analysts and some international authorities have blamed China.
The Internet address that appeared on the screen during the "attack" sequence in the video is registered to the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Officials there said that a student in 2001 hosted a Falun Gong Web site on the university server linked to that address but that the site was removed soon after.