China “hijacked” 15 per cent of the world’s internet traffic for 18 minutes earlier this year, including highly sensitive email exchanges between senior US government and military figures, a report to the US Congress said.

China 'hijacks' 15 per cent of world's internet traffic

8:08AM GMT 18 Nov 2010

The traffic included email exchanges from websites of the US Senate and the Department of Defense, along with “many others” including Nasa and the Department of Commerce.

Chinese internet officials have claimed that the re-routing was accidental, but the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s annual report suggested the hijacking could have been “malicious”.

“Evidence related to this incident does not clearly indicate whether it was perpetrated intentionally and, if so, to what ends,” the report said.

“However, computer security researchers have noted that the capability could enable severe malicious activities.”

Larry Wortzel, a member of the commission, said: “We don’t know what was done with the data when they got it. When I see things like this happen, I ask, who might be interested with all the communications traffic from the entire Department of Defense and federal government? It’s probably not a graduate student at Shanghai University.

“What could you do if you had the stream of email traffic for 18 minutes to and from the US Joint Chiefs of Staff? Most importantly you would get the internet addresses of everybody that communicated.”

While sensitive data such as emails are generally encrypted before being transmitted, the Chinese government holds a copy of an encryption master key which could be used to break into redirected traffic.

Carolyn Bartholomew, vice chairwoman of the commission, said the efforts of Chinese individuals and organisations to penetrate US networks “appear to be more sophisticated than techniques used in the past,” raising fears that the Chinese Government is behind the attacks.

“The massive scale and the extensive intelligence and reconnaissance components of recent high profile, China-based computer exploitations suggest that there continues to be some level of state support for these activities,” she said.

McAfee, the web security firm, has warned of a rise in political cyber attacks, pointing to China as one of the major actors launching assaults on foreign networks.

US targets include the White House, Department of Homeland Security, US Secret Service and Department of Defense, McAfee said in a report last year.

China’s capacity to launch cyber-attacks on US commercial interests was also highlighted this year after Google threatened to completely shutter its operations in the Asian country, saying it became the target of a series of sophisticated cyber-attacks there.

The superpower has come under fierce criticism for its extensive censorship of the web. Wikipedia, the BBC website and a raft of blog spots are among the sites that have been temporarily or permanently blocked by the Government.

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