Becoming the biggest name so far in June to have to parry a major cyberattack, Citigroup has joined the spring lineup of significant corporate victims of digital assaults, which includes Lockheed Martin, Sony, Google, Fox Networks and Michaels Stores.
And while company and brand executives grow increasingly frustrated by the attacks themselves and by vast damage to their businesses, their customers and clients, and their reputations, there’s something else vexing them nearly as much: Who's behind this, exactly, and why are they doing what they’re doing?
At least in a war in the physical world, the identity of the other side is usually well known, often long in advance. Even in the case of the 9/11 attacks, it was only a matter of days before US authorities were certain that Al Qaeda was behind the leveling of the World Trade Center and sent American jets to go and flatten part of Afghanistan.
Clearly, China spawns many of the hackers, whether they’re spies of the state, criminals or both. But you won’t hear many executives of victimized American corporations say that. “Most remain mum, fearing to antagonize China,” wrote Holman W. Jenkins recently, in The Wall Street Journal. Presumably, many US companies also don’t want to endanger their growing business ties with the Chinese government and companies.
Jenkins asserts that Chinese entities are behind much of the increase in cyber-attacks just as in what he called “a highly relevant precedent, the epidemic of high seas piracy in and around Southern China in the mid-1990s.” On the highest level might be a broadly nationalistic effort by Chinese leaders to demonstrate their power.
But the Chinese aren’t alone in targeting U.S. interests with cyber-based threats. Also on the roster of bad guys, experts say, are other foreign-government intelligence services who have long-term national-security motives, transnational criminal enterprises based in places like Russia and Nigeria and mainly interested in financial gain, corrupt competitors – and disgruntled and opportunistic corporate insiders, often highly placed IT executives and managers. Not only are threat wielders proliferating, but their weapons are too.
So expect the roster of corporate victims to grow, any day now.