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UPDATE - US-China cyberwar a dud, but trouble lingers

What if they gave a cyberwar and nobody came? That seems to be the case after Chinese hackers called off their action against the US in retaliation for the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei in early April. Doubts linger in some Internet security experts' minds, however, whether this cyberwar was the week's real threat.

A Chinese hacker group, the Honker Union of China, issued a statement to the Chinese portal Chinabyte earlier in the week declaring a truce and saying that they had reached their goal of hacking 1,000 US sites.

But a truce was perhaps unnecessary, as nothing approaching a war ever materialised. This was despite an earlier warning from the US National Infrastructure Protection Center, which claimed Chinese hackers would attack US Web sites between 30 April and 7 May to commemorate Wang Wei; and celebrate May Day (1 May), Youth Day (4 May) and mark the anniversary of the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (7 May).

In fact, the only traces of a conflict are a series of Web page defacements showing pictures of Wang Wei - who died when his plane crashed into a US spy plane - along with promises to fight "hegemony" and "unify the motherland". From the other side there was a good deal of frequently vulgar anti-Chinese sentiment expressed by US hackers.

All this was complemented by a pile of press releases from eager computer security firms warning users of the danger from "this new form of terrorism". Some security experts say that the real problem that cropped up over the last week was the spread of "Internet worms".

Web page defacements are a form of digital graffiti where a hacker leaves a message or an image on a Web site to show they succeeded in cracking it. This sort of attack is equivalent to "pouring paint on a building", said Alan Paller, director of security research at the SANS Institute.

Two high-profile incidents started the week of action when hackers defaced the Web sites for the US Department of Labor and two sites controlled by the Department of Health and Human Services - Health.gov and Surgeongeneral.gov - with pro-China messages. In the days following those hacks, a number of other low-level US government and military sites were hit.

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