China Power

China’s Brazen Cyber Theft?

Recent Features

China Power

China’s Brazen Cyber Theft?

A senior US lawmaker claims that China is engaging in unprecedented espionage around the world. Is it?

China is spying on the United States on an unprecedented scale and is engaging in ‘brazen and widespread theft’ of intellectual property from around the world, a leading US lawmaker has warned.

‘I don’t believe that there is precedent in history for such a massive and sustained intelligence effort by a government to blatantly steal commercial data and intellectual property,’ US House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich) told a committee hearing on cyber security.

The comments came as Russia’s spy agency, the Federal Security Service, issued a rare statement claiming that a Chinese citizen had been arrested ‘posing as a translator for official delegations.’ According to ABC News, he ‘was working under the direction of the Chinese government in an attempt to buy state secrets from Russians about Russia's S-300 missile system.’

Speaking in an open meeting, Rogers singled out the alleged hacking of Google and other companies in late 2009, an attack that it is believed was aimed at accessing email accounts belonging to human rights activists based in China.

‘There are more companies that have been hit that won’t talk about it in the press, for fear of provoking further Chinese attacks,’ he said. ‘When you talk to these companies behind closed doors, however, they describe attacks that originate in China, and have a level of sophistication and are clearly supported by a level of resources that can only be a nation state entity.’

Claims that China is involved in widespread, state-backed espionage have been growing in recent months, but the latest comments by such a senior US lawmaker mark a distinct raising of the stakes. The senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Dutch Ruppersberger, for his part called for a comprehensive national strategy for protecting the United States from cyber attacks. He suggested, for example, using the Department of Homeland Security as a way of liaising between the National Security Agency and the private sector.

According to a Washington Post piece late last month, it isn’t just large corporations and governments that need to be wary – it suggests that individuals travelling to China might be well-advised to leave laptops and cell phones with sensitive information at home.

‘I’ve been told that if you use an iPhone or BlackBerry, everything on it — contacts, calendar, e-mails — can be downloaded in a second. All it takes is someone sitting near you on a subway waiting for you to turn it on, and they’ve got it,’ the paper quotes Kenneth Lieberthal, a former senior White House official for Asia who is now with the Brookings Institution, as saying.

Are such claims fair? As the Post goes on to note, Chinese government officials argue that cyber spying is a problem in much of the world. ‘It’s advisable for all international travellers to take due precautions with their computers and cell phones,’ it quotes embassy spokesman Wang Baodong as saying. ‘China is not less insecure than other countries.’

This is, of course debatable – I’ve known a number of writers and analysts exchange tips on how to avoid having their phones tapped when they are travelling in China, a discussion that I’ve yet to hear from correspondents based in other countries we cover in The Diplomat.  Still, it’s also true that every country engages in spying to one degree or other, on friends and rivals alike.

So why the intensified interest in China right now? Writing for us last month, Alex Newman noted that China has an estimated two million Chinese working directly or indirectly for the country’s intelligence apparatus, making it the largest spying network in the world. As with much else concerning China, it’s almost certainly sheer scale that causes alarm over this country of 1.3 billion people.

That and perhaps a growing sense here in a weary United States that its place as the dominant global power is threatened in a way that it hasn’t been before. As Eddie Walsh noted today in his piece on the cyber threat proliferation, even US analysts are warning that the United States may not have quite as big an edge in cyber space over other countries as is often assumed.

‘It’s a dangerous assumption to believe that the US is far ahead in cyber capabilities,’ says Robert Giesler, a senior vice president and cyber security director at technology applications company SAIC. ‘There’s a low barrier of entry in this market. We should never use the term dominance in cyber when a 16 year-old can still launch an effective cyber attack.’

This reality, at a time of intense economic uncertainty and with just over a year to go before a presidential election, are likely to exacerbate fears of a China threat.