Indicting China's Hacker
The Wall Street -Tuesday, May 20, 2014
- The big weakness of Monday's indictment is that it treats cyber theft like a normal criminal case when it is really a state-sponsored act of aggression.
- The U.S. should respond with its own cyber battle plan that attacks Chinese targets and forces China to play defense rather than devote all of its resources to hacking U.S. targets.
- The U.S. could punish Chinese firms, such as Huawei, that the House Intelligence Committee has publicly identified for its ties to China's military. The Wall Street Journal
The Justice Department's indictment on Monday of five members of the Chinese military for cybercrimes against America is useful as a way to educate the public about the growing espionage threat.
The question is whether this is merely another of those foreign-policy gestures the ObamaAdministration specializes in to make it appear tougher than its policy really is.
The vast extent of China's cyber spying against government and private U.S. targets is well known in the government, so the power of this case is its public specificity.
The indictment names five members of Unit 61398 of the People's Liberation Army in Shanghai for hacking five U.S. companies and a labor union in the steel, solar and nuclear-power industries.
The suspects sought information about computers, pricing and technology.
As targets ourselves of Chinese spying, we assume the companies and union have long known they were in the PLA's sights.
But much of the American public still doesn't comprehend the magnitude of the cyber assault against U.S. private industry, and in that sense the indictment will be instructive.
As one intelligence source has put it to us, there are only two kinds of companies in the U.S. today: Those who've been hacked, and those who don't know they've been hacked.
Yet as a defense against Chinese cyber warfare, the indictment by itself will accomplish little.
The five men charged with conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse are never likely to see the inside of a U.S. court, much less a prison cell.
China's foreign ministry immediately denounced the charges, claiming that China is the real cyber war victim. Don't expect the defendants to be dispatched stateside anytime this century.
It also isn't clear how serious the Justice Department will be in pursuing the case.
While Attorney General Eric Holder announced the charges, that could be to magnify the political statement more than as a signal of a new and tougher policy against foreign cyber warfare.
The Obama Administration has previously filed charges against foreign conspirators to great fanfare, most notably in 2011 against agents of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps for plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in a Washington, D.C. restaurant.
The chief plotter was convicted, but the gravity of this assassination attempt on U.S. soil has faded as President Obama pursues a nuclear agreement and detente with Tehran.
The larger weakness of Monday's indictment is that it treats cyber theft like a normal criminal case when it is really a state-sponsored act of aggression.
This isn't some rogue band of hackers.
The five named defendants are part of the Chinese military, which has a formal cyber arm that targets American secrets.
These hackers are as much agents of the Chinese state as the pilots of PLA warplanes.
The proper way to respond to cyber war is to use the tools of statecraft to make China pay a political and economic price.
A criminal indictment against Wang Dong and comrades is not such a price.
The U.S. should respond with its own cyber battle plan that attacks Chinese targets and forces China to play defense rather than devote all of its resources to hacking U.S. targets.
The U.S. could also punish Chinese firms, such as Huawei, that the House Intelligence Committee has publicly identified for its ties to China's military.
It could limit U.S.-China military-to-military ties and deny visas to the children of China's elites who want to attend American universities.
The U.S. ought to be explicit in saying that these and other actions are direct responses to Chinese cyber attacks against Americans.
China might still continue its cyber assault, calculating that the potential benefits outweigh the costs.
We can say with certainty that an indictment of five junior PLA hackers will be no deterrent at all.