The United States and China have moved a little bit closer to a joint understanding on cybersecurity, cyberwar, and the ongoing theft of proprietary trade secrets via hacking. In a meeting at the White House today, President Obama and Xi Jinping of China announced a “common understanding” to combat “cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property,” but left a lot of unspoken space about just what that common understanding actually is.
Both the American and Chinese governments, along with affiliated parties, are believed to routinely hack each other’s systems. In addition, the systems of private companies are frequently hacked to learn trade secrets that could give private parties or government-affiliated agencies in foreign countries a technical advantage.
These hacks can sometimes have massive consequences. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM), essentially the federal government’s HR department, admits hackers stole 5.6 million fingerprints from their servers. The hackers, believed to be based in China, are believed to have obtained the fingerprints of spies and undercover agents serving the U.S. government abroad in the process.
Both the United States and China are adopting a United Nation accord that prohibits countries from attacking each other’s critical infrastructure, including energy utility and phone networks, during peacetime. But much else, ranging from theft of records to strategically disabling networks at private companies, remains outside the range of the agreement. Because cyberwar is cheaper, less dangerous, costs fewer lives (at least so far), and leaves fewer fingerprints, the United States, China, and many other countries are increasingly investing resources in it.
Economic espionage via the Internet is a new riff on an old theme; in the early 1990s, Air France jets were accused of having hidden microphones by NBC News. The hidden microphones, NBC News said, were used to eavesdrop on the executives of American high-tech companies that competed with French firms. Air France denied the allegations.