Edward Snowden’s revelations about the U.S. government’s extensive online-surveillance programs have been a propaganda boon in China, and Beijing has raced to paint the Obama Administration as hypocritical for admonishing the Chinese government for cyberattacks while apparently committing plenty of its own.
On Thursday, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Yang Yujun lashed out at perceived American double standards on cyberespionage, saying:
The Prismgate affair is itself just like a prism that reveals the true face and hypocritical conduct regarding Internet … To, on the one hand, abuse one’s advantages in information technology for selfish ends, while on the other hand, making baseless accusations against other countries, shows double standards that will be of no help for peace and security in cyberspace.
Chinese officials have been complaining about U.S. hypocrisy on hacking even before they knew about the existence of Prism. On June 5, a day before the National Security Agency’s program was revealed, China’s top Internet security official stated that China possessed “mountains of data” on American cyberattacks against the People’s Republic. Now that Prism is out in the open, these types of complaints have echoed from across the international community, and the Obama Administration has been scrambling to debunk them.
So does the U.S. have two sets of rules when it comes to cyberspying? Not really, but it can look that way.
First of all, China likely does have mountains of data on U.S. hacking attacks because the U.S. has been doing mountains of hacking. In addition to collecting billions of pieces of metadata from around the world (and China ranks high on the U.S. priority list), a recent exposé in Foreign Policy magazine revealed that the NSA has a secret hacking army of its own.
Described as the “wunderkind of the U.S. intelligence community,” the Office of Tailored Access Operations (TAO) has been breaking into China’s computers and telecommunications systems for 15 years. With 600 techies (backed up by hundreds more support staff) working around the clock on rotating shifts, TAO does everything from stealing passwords, data and text messages to analyzing foreign communication infrastructure for weaknesses that could be exploited by actual cyberweapons. And speaking of cyberweapons, Obama has even asked his national-security and intelligence staff for a list of potential cyberattack targets.
However, the U.S. apparently sees this sort of intelligence gathering as par for the course in the game of international espionage. While the Obama Administration certainly isn’t happy that China uses hacking for normal intelligence gathering, U.S. officials have rarely complained about it, reserving their ire for state-sponsored intellectual-property theft.
The New York Times quoted a senior American official, briefed on upcoming hacking talks between the U.S. and China, as saying the meetings would primarily focus on IP theft. “Our concerns are not limited to that,” said the official, “but that’s what needs urgent attention.” The Times reported that other experts have expressed similar sentiments, saying that neither country wants to discuss military espionage.
Obama himself has also made it clear that he sees IP theft as the primary difference between American and Chinese hacking. “Every country in the world, large and small, engages in intelligence gathering, and that is an occasional source of tension, but is generally practiced within bounds,” Obama said in an interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose in June:
There is a big difference between China wanting to figure out how can they find out what my talking points are when I’m meeting with the Japanese, which is standard fare … and a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple’s software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product. That’s theft. And we can’t tolerate that.
According to experts and U.S. officials, the theft Obama is referring to has been conducted on a grand scale. The Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, headed by Jon Huntsman (a former ambassador to China) and Dennis Blair (former Director of National Intelligence), has said hacking costs the U.S. $300 billion dollars a year, and China has been behind 70% of intellectual property and trade secrets stolen. This has led General Keith Alexander, NSA director and head of the U.S. Cyber Command, to call the hacking of the American private sector “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”
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China seems to be at least somewhat aware of the distinction the U.S. is making, and at times has sought to conflate American intelligence gathering with industrial espionage. Wang Changqin, a professor at a Chinese military academy, has accused the U.S. of “yelling themselves hoarse to cover their own thievery” of Chinese secrets. “How much Chinese property did they steal?” asked Wang. “America is slipping from being a hacker empire to being a stealing money empire.”
Yet there is little evidence that the U.S. has stolen Chinese secrets for the benefit of private industry. One American official told the International Herald Tribune that the U.S. does not engage in such activity for both moral and practical reasons, saying, “I can tell you with absolute certainty the U.S. government does not pass on technological secrets obtained through [strictly speaking, as a by-product of] espionage to U.S. firms, both as a matter of principle and because there is no fair way to do it [in regards to how the stolen property would be distributed to the private sector].”
But while the U.S. may see an obvious difference in where the two nations draw the line on cybersnooping, it appears unlikely that it will affect the international hacking debate. “[China] deliberately targets foreign technology for military and commercial purposes, so this is apples and oranges” said the same official quoted above, “but in the propaganda war, that fact won’t matter.”