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Chinese Feds demand computer virus samples

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China's Ministry of Public Security has been requiring Western anti-virus vendors to supply samples of malicious code as a condition of doing business with Mainland consumers, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The official Chinese explanation would have us believe that the secret police have lately gone into the consumer protection business by claiming that the samples are necessary to enable the Feds to test the effectiveness of the software being sold.

Tantalized by the glittering promise of 1.2 billion (largely penniless) consumers, Network Associates, Symantec and Trend Micro have graciously complied, offering up approximately 300 virus samples to curry favor enough to sell their products in the PRC.

What the Chinese Feds really intend with these samples is unclear, but we can be confident that the consumer-protection cover story is the last explanation likely to be true.

It's long been known that China is developing a cyber-warfare capability, since it lacks the technological sophistication, manufacturing capacity and raw capital required to compete head-to-head with military juggernauts like the USA, EU, and, until recent years, Russia.

Beijing clearly sees information warfare as an inexpensive battlefield equalizer. But according to the Journal report, only the most common malicious programs in circulation -- all of which are easily detected -- have been surrendered.

Most of these are available on the Web to anyone capable of using a search engine with a modicum of ingenuity.

It seems implausible, then, that the PLA and internal security apparatus would rely on submissions from vendors when a thorough Web search will yield much the same raw material.

Nevertheless it's beyond question that the Chinese authorities intend to secure for themselves the capability of launching devastating cyber attacks. With that in mind, we might make sense of this trend if we consider that they might wish to see a broad sample of detectable viruses in hopes of modifying them to evade detection without diluting their effectiveness.

We can also be confident that they're gleefully breaking every copyright law known to man, reversing the anti-virus software in search of other weaknesses they can exploit along those lines.

Incredibly, Network Associates Research Director Vincent Gullotto is quoted by the Journal saying that he's "met with [the Ministry of Public Security], developed a certain level of trust, and believes they're doing what they're talking to us about."

Isn't it remarkable how greed can instantly transform a jaded businessman into a gullible Pollyanna? ®

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