Chinese cyber espionage allegedly a problem in Canada too

The United States and China are now embroiled in a spirited spat over cyber-espionage.

Over the weekend, a U.S. grand jury indicted five Chinese military officers for hacking computer systems of American companies. Specifically, U.S. officials are alleging that these individuals were stealing trade secrets for the benefit of China's state-owned companies.

The United States isn't alone. Other countries, including Canada, have allegedly been victims of Chinese cyber espionage.

In January 2012, CBC News reported that that foreign hackers from China gained access to highly classified information at the Finance Department, Treasury Board, and Defence Research and Development Canada.

There has also been allegations of Chinese hacker attacks on private Canadian companies. Remember Nortel?

In an interview with the CBC's As It Happens in February 2012, Brian Shields, the former senior systems security adviser at Nortel, said spying by hackers was constant from about 2000 until 2009 and was a "considerable factor" in that company's bankruptcy.

"When they see what your business plans are, that's a huge advantage. It's unfair business practices that really bring down a company of this size," Shields said.

There's more.

In 2013, according to the Financial Post, a report by U.S. internet firm Mandiant claimed that one of China’s cyber espionage units hacked the computer systems of at least seven organizations with operations in Canada.

The same article cites reports of Chinese hackers gaining access to law firms involved in the takeover bid for Saskatchewan’s Potash Corp.

[ Related: China denounces U.S. cyber espionage charges ]

Despite those attacks, a cyber security expert suggests that Canada won't follow the U.S. lead and press charges against the perpetrators.

"Canada has many of the same issues, and has been hurt in many of the same ways by Chinese industrial espionage," Queen's University David Skillicorn told Yahoo Canada News in an email exchange.

"But two problems have prevented us from doing much about it: (1) attribution -- who is responsible?

"(2) Effective response — what could you do even if you knew who was responsible? (and the US response is little more than naming and shaming)."

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The federal response to this type of espionage has been somewhat muted.

In 2010, they released their "cyber security strategy" pledging to invest in securing Government of Canada systems, as well as partnering with other governments and with industry to ensure systems vital to Canadian security were protected.

The Public Safety department also established the Canadian Cyber Incident Response Centre to coordinate the federal response to "cyber security incidents" outside government networks, with a focus on guarding key infrastructure such as energy pipelines and power plants.

But some have argued that Ottawa hasn't done enough with regard to Canadian companies' trade secrets.

"Public-private partnerships, regulation, establishment of norms, public education —we’re not doing a great job," University of Ottawa's Wesley Wark said at a tech conference in November, according to IT World Canada.

"We have the paternalistic suggestion from the federal government in its cybersecurity strategy that the public should get better at individual security and pay more attention. That’s clearly not going to get us very far."

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