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Collision Could Launch Wave of Hackers



WASHINGTON -- After America accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, Chinese hackers launched hundreds of attacks on U.S. Web sites and infiltrated at least four government Internet sites.

As Chinese animosity against the United States again flares on the Internet over the ongoing American spy plane incident, computer security and Pentagon experts say the United States could encounter a similar wave if the situation isn't defused soon.

"We have seen an increase in hacking in times of crisis," said Ari Schwartz, senior policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "It's a microcosm of a larger debate, a way for individuals to get involved in the crisis."

So far, no sizable uptick in Web site intrusions or e-mail spamming has been registered by companies or agencies that monitor such cyber-events.

But Chinese Internet chat rooms and other sites are seething over U.S. refusal to apologize for the collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese F-8 fighter that occurred Sunday over the South China Sea.

The Chinese pilot parachuted as his plane went down and remains missing. Chinese 'Net surfers blame America for the loss, which they claim was deliberate, according to Chinese media reports.

U.S. officials say the incident was an accident provoked when two Chinese warplanes buzzed the slow-moving Navy plane, the latest in a series of aggressive moves in recent months. The plane and crew remained Tuesday on China's Hainan Island, and President Bush reiterated his demand that the crew and craft be released immediately.

"We should not return the plane. Then let's see what they can do about it," one angry Chinese Internet message said. "We are not Yugoslavia."

In May 1999, after a U.S. guided missile struck the Chinese embassy during NATO's bombing of Belgrade during the Kosovo crisis, Chinese hackers broke into an estimated 1,000 U.S. civilian Web sites during the first two days after the accidental attack, according to security experts.

Hackers traced to China also infiltrated at least four U.S. government sites, including the Energy and Interior Departments' Web sites, the U.S. Embassy site in Beijing and the U.S. Naval Communications Command.

The hackers planted messages condemning the bombing and otherwise lambasting America. The Energy site was shut down for a day as a result, and the others were disrupted temporarily.

Security experts noted that these attacks, along with widespread e-mail spamming, amounted to a nuisance rather than a security breach. No classified Internet sites were reported invaded.

Of more significance was a coordinated attack by Chinese hackers on NATO computers.

"They came at us daily, hell-bent on taking down NATO networks," Lt. Gen. William Donahue, commander of the Air Force Communications and Information Center, said at the time.

Some in the Chinese leadership have embraced the use of cyber-war tactics by militarily weaker countries against their stronger opponents, viewing electronic warfare as a way to level the battlefield.

In the months after the NATO embassy bombing, the Liberation Army Daily -- a mouthpiece for China's Peoples Liberation Army -- called for the recruitment of civilian hackers and training of army soldiers in cyber-tactics.

More recently, followers of China's outlawed Falun Gong sect have accused the Chinese government of sabotaging or crashing U.S., Canadian and British Web sites maintained by sect followers.

2001 Daily Camera

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