The attacks on mailing lists and online forums contain information related to recent events in Tibet and may appear to come from a trusted person or organization.
In early March, a computer security researcher at Sophos noticed different malware using Tibetan images to trigger an exploit.
A spokesperson for the FBI in Washington, D.C., confirmed that the agency had received information from the Save Darfur Coalition indicating that the group's e-mail accounts had been compromised by hackers who appear to be based in China and that the FBI is looking into the matter. The Save Darfur Coalition has been critical of China for "sponsoring the genocide in Darfur."
The FBI had no information to provide about attacks targeting Tibetan groups.
Sachs recounted how in 2001, following a collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane and a People's Liberation Army jet, Chinese hackers attacked U.S. servers. "Best we could tell, there was no Chinese government involvement," he said.
Sachs believes the cyberattacks directed at Tibetan organizations are similarly the actions of Chinese hackers motivated by nationalism, without national direction.
The massive cyberattack on Estonia last year, in response to Estonia's decision to move a Russian war memorial, presents an analogous situation. While Russia's hand in the affair is easy to imagine, cybersecurity experts mostly see the attack as an act of nationalist zeal rather than coordinated, state-sponsored cyberwarfare.
Now that the Internet has evolved from a geeky curiosity to a shared transnational platform of economic, social, and political consequence, the question becomes, what kind of political response is appropriate for such attacks?
Were Canadians regularly shooting at the tires of U.S. trucks attempting to deliver goods into Canada, both the U.S. and Canadian governments would respond. Yet the information economy is not defended with the same enthusiasm as the real-goods economy.
Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo have tried to raise this issue by calling for the U.S. government to treat censorship as a trade barrier. To date, that hasn't happened.
In contrast to traditional political crises, where countries withdraw diplomats or impose sanctions to voice discontent, Sachs said, "In the cyberworld, we don't have centuries of diplomatic solutions. We're probably going to go through several decades of uncertainty about how to express displeasure."
5 Top Federal Initiatives For 2015As InformationWeek Government readers were busy firming up their fiscal year 2015 budgets, we asked them to rate more than 30 IT initiatives in terms of importance and current leadership focus. No surprise, among more than 30 options, security is No. 1. After that, things get less predictable.