When Google announced last week that it was targeted by a cyber attack originating from China it certainly got media attention. Google is a household name and China is perceived as a growing competitor. But transnational cyber attacks are widespread, and China isn’t necessarily Australia’s biggest problem.

“Australian attacks targeting the private sector have come from other so-called ‘friendly countries’. Which country is a problem closely correlates with business competition in the particular sector,” a security consultant at a leading outsourcing firm told Crikey.

“You could pick any one of our major trading partners and I could tell you a story about a sophisticated and well-executed attack sourced from that country. Examples at the top of my mind include Japan, Canada, US, India and France.”

Writing in SANS NewsBites, a newsletter of the SANS (SysAdmin, Audit, Network, Security) Institute, Gartner vice-president John Pescatore downplayed the importance of China as the source of Google’s attacks.

“Five years ago the source of many attacks against US companies was traced to Russia, now it is China; but failing to protect your systems results in the same expensive damage to you and your customers regardless of who launched the attack. Similar targeted attacks have been going on for quite some time,” Pescatore wrote.

Indeed, none of this is new. Economic security is part of national security, and state intelligence organisations aren’t above engaging in industrial espionage.

A 2001 European Parliament report alleged that the ECHELON communications interception system operated by the US National Security Agency and their partners in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand twice helped US companies gain commercial advantage over European firms.

In 1994, Europe’s Airbus consortium supposedly lost a $6 billion contract with Saudi Arabia after the NSA lifted faxes and phone calls to uncover bribes. US defence systems firm Raytheon was reported to have been assisted winning a $1.4 billion contract to sell radar to Brazil over France’s Thomson-CSF.

Former CIA director James Woolsey has acknowledged that the US conducts economic espionage against European allies

China certainly has a massive cyber warfare capability.

“China may well have the most extensive cyber warfare capability in the world and the willingness to use it more aggressively than any other country,” wrote Stratfor Global Intelligence in February 2009.

And the attack on Google does appear to be part of a larger Chinese operation targeting at least 33 other companies, including Adobe, aerospace company Northrop Grumman and Juniper Networks. The Wall Street Journal names Yahoo and security firm Symantec as targets, and perhaps Dow Chemicals.

The New York Times says Google’s description of the attack “closely matches a vast surveillance system called Ghostnet that was reported in March by a group of Canadian researchers.”

But China isn’t the only player. Far from it. There’s plenty of reasons why Australia formally opened  a new Cyber Security Operations Centre at the Defence Signals Directorate in Canberra on Friday.