Philippines, China Hackers Warring in Cyberspace Over Scarborough Shoal?

China and the Philippines  — along with Taiwan — are disputing sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal off the coast of either country in the South China Sea (also known as the West Philippine Sea). Filipino and Chinese navel vessels have likewise had stand-offs in the area due to alleged illegal fishing. But amid the diplomatic disputes, there is a war going on another level: in cyberspace. But is it really a cyber-war that two sides are engaged in?

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Skirmishes in Cyberspace

The Philippine government has disowned hack attacks made on Chinese websites, and has warned that these “skirmishes in cyberspace” can worsen the dispute between the two countries. According to the Philippine Department of Science and Technology’s ICT Office, the attacks are “neither sanctioned nor condoned by the Philippine government, and must be stopped at the soonest.”

The ICT Office has likewise expressed that it is understandable for the local hacker community to be concerned about the issue, although “exchanges such as this one will not benefit anyone and could possibly lead to bigger problems in the future … and escalate the already tense situation.”

Recent hacking activities included the defacing of the University of the Philippines website, as well as the Philippine Department of Budget and Management, which had sparked a series of retaliatory activities by hacker groups in the Philippines. Hackers are probing into Philippine government domains, said Roy Espiritu, a spokesman for the Philippine ICT office, adding that these include attempts at distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. “The [hackers’] signatures indicate they are from Chinese networks,” he added.

Attacks may have come from other sources, and not necessarily China, the officials say. Meanwhile, Philippine-based hackers are divided on the issue. Some, like groups that call themselves “PrivateX” and Anonymous #OccupyPhilippines” are actively hacking Chinese government websites. Others, like the “Philker Developers Network” say they will not take part in attacks.

Hacktivism vs. Cyber War

But even amid attacks from either end, the defacements and DDoS attacks can hardly be called “war,” given sentiments by security analysts. A 2008 article on Computerworld said such an activity will usually target telecommunications facilities, which would isolate the target from the rest of the Internet, and therefore vulnerable from within. “If there was a real cyberwar going on, the cheapest and most effective military and political strategy would have been to cut the few fiber connections leading out of the country and to disable through military action any remaining satellite uplinks..

If anything, these could either be acts of propaganda, or simply acts of nationalism among independent hackers.

The leader of the Philker group says the defacement activities may or may not have been sanctioned by the Chinese government. If they were sanctioned attacks, it could be possible that  “the [Chinese] government is providing them with substantial funds for their operations.” However, another motive may be love for their country, or “bragging rights,” says the hacker who goes by the alias ~nitrob.

Rather than attack foreign websites, though, ~nitrob suggested that hackers can instead help local websites by helping improve security. “One of the best ways of helping our country is to report security holes/vulnerabilities to their respective application developers,” the hacker said.