WASHINGTON – I do not quite understand why the US Department of Justice in a very public way announced that 5 members of the Chinese military –their names and photographs all over the US media– have been indicted of cyberspying against US corporations.
China is engaged in hacking
It is a well-known fact that China’s government is actively engaged in stealing economically valuable information via hacking into the IT systems of major US companies. The targeted entities know this. Other companies are at least aware of the threat. The US Government is also aware, and, working with the private sector, it is (we hope) trying to create barriers and countermeasures, difficult as this is.
Why a public announcement?
If this is so, what is to be gained by “naming and shaming” specific Chinese individuals allegedly responsible for hacking activities against some US companies? The only value of this rather theatrical announcement made by Eric Holder, The US Attorney General, is that, by naming names and making reference to specific circumstances, hacking becomes much more “real”, including for those who should pay more attention but probably do not. And this may be good.
Indeed, the sad truth is that America is deeply vulnerable to hacking and cyber attacks. The total value of the economic information stolen by China and other hackers is probably in the hundreds of billions.
The indictment changes nothing
That said, however, an indictment by the US Department of Justice, probably followed by a trial, (with no defendants in court), will not by itself enhance the security of US corporations.
The named individuals work for the Chinese Government. China has no intention of cooperating in this matter. It has already denied any wrongdoing, stating that these are just slanderous accusations that come from a country –America– whose extensive NSA spying has been exposed by the revelations made by Edward Snowden.
Sure enough, the US Government would like to draw a fine distinction between “spying for national security” and “spying for economic gain”. But this distinction is not appreciated by most people. China is engaged in spying, and so is America. That’s the way it is.
Therefore, once again, what is to be gained by trying to publicly embarrass China? Is this move part of a broader strategy aimed at taking a hard line against a country that –at least in some areas– seems unwilling to play by the rules? If this so, I do not see the contours of this strategy.
A complex relationship
The fact is that dealing with China is very complicated. There is a web of relationships. There are literally hundreds of thousands of Chinese students enrolled in American universities. Most US IT companies rely on Chinese partners to produce/assemble computers, smart phones and other gadgets. China in turn relies on the US as its main export market for consumer goods, while it buys coal and agricultural products from America. While Alcoa, Westinghouse, US Steel Corp. and others have been targeted by China’s hackers, Wal-Mart relies on Chinese suppliers to fill up the shelves of its mega-supermarkets; while GM, Caterpillar and GE want to preserve their Chinese markets.
Not playing by the rules
The real problem in this vast and multi-faceted relationship is that China “is not like us”. China now has a modern and vibrant economy. But the country is run by an unelected elite that plays by its own rules, while often ignoring international agreements and standards. Since hacking cannot be easily proven, (and forget about “punishing” the perpetrators), China will continue engaging in the theft of economically valuable information, if it thinks it can profit from it.
America is in no position to seriously punish China for its misdeeds. Whatever the damages of Chinese hacking, there are just too many US players interested in keeping the economic/investment/trade channels open.
Leave it to the experts
Therefore, it seems to me that this rather secretive hacking war should be left to the experts. While we all know that setting up real, permanent barriers to cyber spying is next to impossible, recruiting the best professionals so that they can keep improving workable countermeasures is a better course of action than public announcements in which the US Government declares the intention to put Chinese bad guys on trial.