The Justice Department has indicted five officers in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The accusations include attacking the computer systems of U.S. nuclear, solar and metal firms for commercial advantage; that is, stealing data. China, of course, says this is all bollocks, and summoned the U.S. ambassador to the Forbidden City to yell at him. Chinese theft of commercial data is a real problem, but indictments are about the least effective response this side of doing nothing. China isn’t about to extradite them, so what was the point?
Voice of America states, “The U.S. identified the five military officers as Wang Dong, Sun Kailiang, Wen Xinyu, Huang Zhenyu and Gu Chunhui, all of whom face 31 charges, each of which each carries a 15-year prison term.” They are all part of the General Staff Department (GSD), Third Department, Second Bureau, known as unit 61398. It’s based in a white 12-story building on Tonggang Road near the intersection of Datong Road in the Pudong district of Shanghai.
In other words, we know who they are and where they are, and you don’t need a security clearance to find them. And the American response is to file criminal charges? This is what happens when you start to believe that the law has an answer for everything and your government is full of lawyers rather than historians, linguists, geographers and anthropologists.
By and large, I am a supporter of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but this is plain stupid. All we have achieved is to annoy the Chinese, who will continue to steal billions in intellectual property from American firms. There are vastly better ways to deal with hacking.
First off, you have to understand that the Chinese government is more than happy to steal data — why invent something when you can simply photocopy what the inventors did? Second, they are opportunistic in their approach, they don’t set out to get the formula for Coke. Instead, they look for whatever they can find and see if anything is useful. Third, the technology gap between the U.S. and China (while shrinking) is vast enough that most data they can secure is helpful. Fourth and last, in asymmetrical conflicts under current technology, the advantage lies with the party that is playing offense.
Defending America’s trade secrets, therefore, is a losing proposition. Deterring the hacking (burglaries, if you prefer) in the first place will be vastly more effective. The U.S. needs to raise the cost to China if it persists in this behavior.
For instance, there is the International Emergency Economic Power Enhancement Act under which the President could declare cyber-theft of intellectual property represents an “extraordinary threat to the national security . . . or economy of the United States.” That would allow the U.S. government to “investigate, regulate and freeze transactions and assets as well as block imports and exports in order to address the threat of cyber theft and espionage.” American firms hate government interference, but the national security card will carry the day.
If the U.S. were to respond to hacking in kind, rather than with indictments, China would find that it has to defend a great deal and has less capacity to do so than America. One needn’t be so bold as to meddle with China’s electrical grid or traffic control systems, but surely the credit card information of every member of the ruling elite can be compromised easily enough. Pick a company that has benefited from the theft of American data and simply render its access to the Internet impossible. Deniable actions are numerous.
Alternatively, the U.S. can target the building in Shanghai. While a cruise missile would probably start a shooting war no one wants, it is hard to believe that the U.S. doesn’t have assets in the city that could be used to make life there awkward. Israel has denied that it is responsible for the murders of Iranian nuclear scientists, and similarly, there is no reason for the U.S. to start offing foreign hackers. However, physical countermeasures like turning off the climate control for their servers has a certain appeal.
The parallel with the mafia is a close one. The difference between Marxist bureaucrats and the mob is a small one (and favors the mob). It is more effective to infiltrate and disrupt plans before they start than it is to try to punish the bad guys after the fact.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.