Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cyber Chinese!

...U.S. officials and experts of all political persuasions in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, in private industry and in think tanks are convinced that China is behind many of the most egregious attacks. A senior Air Force official estimated that, as of two years ago, China has stolen at least 10 to 20 terabytes of data from U.S. government networks -- the larger figure equal, by some estimates, to one-fifth of the Library of Congress's digital holdings.

Nuclear weapons labs, defense contractors, the State Department and other sensitive federal government agencies have fallen prey. What experts do not know is exactly what has been stolen or how badly U.S. systems have been exposed. "Given the intrusions into defense industry networks, multibillion-dollar weapons systems . . . may have already been compromised," said James Mulvenon, a China expert with Defense Group Inc. ...

Some U.S. cyber policy experts such as James A. Lewis, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, acknowledge that the problem cannot be solved without international engagement. At the same time, Lewis said, "I'm not going to get upset about China spying on us, because we spy on them." (In the WaPo, via Ezra K)

This is mostly conjecture, but knowing something about China (which is not a whole lot), I'd venture that Chinese cyber-spying is currently more likely to be essentially a massive technology and information transfer system more than a defensive preparation for future warfare. That information flow just can't come fast enough for growing China and is intentionally regulated by the West. Since US commentators often seem incapable of analyzing foreign affairs in anything other than military and militaristic terms, however, we could easily miss this important reality.

Obviously, China is a rapidly growing economy and political force often operating at the far edge of hyper-modernity. But the reality is that the country as a whole is also largely a poor, under-educated, developing nation struggling with difficult problems and a relative paucity of ideas and idea-generating institutions adequate for China's scale (plus a citizenry that can be very quick to mass-protest failed policies and economic woes). Even many of the showiest, most impressive parts of the modern Chinese economy are at least as much about surface as substance. The very strength of the Chinese economy rests largely on currency controls that maintain artificially low (and inequitable) labor costs and prices within the country, thus quickly siphoning off labor-intensive industry jobs and other economic activity from the rest of the world. There's a good reason why it's often cheaper to have something manufactured in China and then shipped to the US than to go the guy just down the street who manufactures the same thing.

China remains desperately in need of information and ideas on many different fronts. Cyber-theft is one way to increase the supply flow when open and agreed routes of technology and knowledge transfer can't keep up with the pace of demand.

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