MySci Round-Up November 17: Did China Hijack U.S. Government Servers for 18 Minutes?

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You probably missed this story, amid all the hoopla about allegations that Tea Party supporters rigged the vote on “Dancing With the Stars” to keep Bristol Palin in the competition, despite her underwhelming talents as a hoofer. But a little-noticed report by a U.S. commission reveals that for 18 minutes on April 18, 2010, China Telecom manipulated the system by which routers communicate and transmit packets of data throughout the world, and rerouted U.S. government and Pentagon traffic through Chinese servers. Was this a mistake, or a demonstration of cyber-warfare might?

The report notes that the switch “affected traffic to and from US government (‘‘.gov’’) and military (‘‘.mil’’) sites, including those for the Senate, the army, the navy, the marine corps, the air force, the office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and many others. Certain commercial websites were also affected, such as those for Dell, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and IBM.”

Ars Technica’s Nate Anderson, who seems to have picked up on this story first, explains that such “IP hijacking” is easily done in a worldwide network that is based largely upon trust. Routers rely upon something called Border Gateway Protocol, or BGP, to piece together the best route between two IP addresses. But if someone advertises incorrect routing information, all hell can break loose. “Routers across the globe can be convinced to send traffic on geographically absurd paths,” Anderson writes.

What happened on April 18 is similar to the infamous 2008 incident in which the Pakistani government, in a clumsy effort to block a YouTube clip of a Dutch film critical of Islam within its borders, inadvertently disrupted users’ requests for YouTube from all over the globe for about an hour. And while it’s possible, even likely, that the April 18 disruption was also an accident, the report notes another, more malevolent possibility. Such a rerouting might enable the Chinese “to compromise the integrity of supposedly secure encrypted sessions.” As Ars Technica’s Anderson notes, the Chinese government has been trying to compel foreign companies doing business in China to hand over the skeleton keys to their encryption technologies. So far, the companies have resisted, in part because of fears that the keys might find their way into the hands of Chinese firms, who might use it for industrial espionage or to launch cyber-attacks.

Now, the rest of the news.

NASA scientists hope the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer will help uncover what the universe is made of. They’re hoping that a lot of it turns out to be so-called “dark matter,” or else they’re going to have a whole lot of explaining to do about where all that missing mass is.

Taekwondo competitor disqualified from Asian Games for allegedly using electronically-rigged socks. She’s accused of hiding sensors in her footwear that would make it easier for her to score on punches and kicks, which judges monitor through an electronic system. Of course, Chuck Norris could have registered a winning score just by giving the judges’ computer a mean look.

Will advertisers use Facebook data to stalk you across the Web? FB honcho Mark Zuckerberg says uh-uh, but nevertheless, there’s rumors on the Internets that the social networking giant may unleash a web-wide advertising network that targets FB users based on their behavior and friends.

Animal study suggests immune system plays role in depression. We sure wish we could cheer up those animals.

Whip-tailed bacteria someday could “tweet” to cancer-fighting nanobots. We’re hoping that they’ll use this ability for the good of humanity, and not to rig the viewer vote on “Dancing with the Paramecium.”