The Washington Post reported this morning that the U.S. government is “charging members of the Chinese military with conducting economic cyber-espionage against American companies.” According to the story, Attorney General Eric Holder will “announce a criminal indictment in a national security case,” naming members of the People’s Liberation Army.
If you will recall, cyber-security, cyber-espionage, and cyber-theft of trade secrets and other intellectual property belonging to American businesses started becoming prominent sources of friction in the U.S.-China relationship about 18 months ago before suddenly dropping off the front pages 11 months ago to make way for revelations of domestic spying by the U.S. National Security Agency. Somehow, the notion that Chinese government-sponsored cyber-theft broached a red line lost some of its luster after Americans learned what Edward Snowden had to share about their own government.
But today the issue of Chinese cyber-transgression is back on the front pages. Never before – according to the Washington Post – has the U.S. government leveled such criminal charges against a foreign government. The U.S. rhetoric has been heated and, just this afternoon, the Chinese government responded by characterizing the claims as “ungrounded,” “absurd,” “a pure fabrication,” and “hypocritical.”
While the U.S. allegations may be true, given well-publicized U.S. cyber-intrusions, it isn’t too difficult to agree with the “hypocritical” characterization either. Perhaps that’s why the U.S. government is attempting to distinguish between cyber-espionage, which is conducted by states to discern the intentions of other governments – and is, from the U.S. perspective, fair play – from “economic” cyber-espionage, which is perpetrated by states or other actors against private businesses and is, from the U.S. perspective, completely unacceptable. It’s not too difficult to understand why the United States has adopted that bifurcated position. The Washington Post quotes a U.S. government estimate of annual losses due to economic cyber espionage at $24-$120 billion.