Recently, someone left a comment on my article entitled “India Baits Chinese Hackers,” that rightfully pointed out that the Chinese are not the only individuals engaged in operations in cyberspace.
The commenter said “It’s a little bit insulting that the media is acting like no other nation in the world is involved in spying except the Chinese. Do you really think that American and India are innocent of cyber-spying? Give me a break!”
My response is this: I agree. China is not the only country engaged in cyber espionage. In fact, there are a number of nations engaged in cyber espionage, for a host of reasons. The top cyber espionage players are China, France, Israel, North Korea, Russia, the UK and the U.S. In addition, many other nations utilize the Internet to carry out espionage.
In his forthcoming book, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, Richard Clarke, a former presidential advisor, writes: “The idea of limiting cyber espionage requires us to question what is wrong with doing it, to ask what problem is such a ban intended to solve?”
“Cyber espionage is in many ways easier, cheaper, more successful and has lower consequences than traditional espionage. That may mean that more countries will spy on each other, and do more of it than they otherwise would,” he writes.
As Clarke rightly points out, cyberspace evens the playing field dramatically. Countries that may not have well developed “traditional” espionage capabilities can acquire information without having to develop assets within the host government (though HUMINT is still the ultimate goal of most intelligence organizations).
The French, in fact, are known to engage in cyber espionage in support of their domestic business community. The French are also reputed to be sitting on U.S. networks. The Israelis have used their cyber capabilities in operations against Hamas. The British security services actively recruit employees to fill cyber roles. And the Russians, Chinese and North Koreans have both been involved in high profile cyber incidents.
Now this brings us to the United States. The U.S. has perhaps the most advanced cyber capabilities of any nation. We constantly hear about the Chinese spying on Western nations, dissidents and neighbors. So why does no one (outside of perhaps Iran) mention the U.S.’ ongoing cyber espionage efforts?
The answer: the U.S. is currently the best at cyber espionage. In HUMINT collection, the Eastern bloc countries, particularly the Soviet Union and GDR, were the best. The U.S. leads the way in cyber.
Jim Lewis, of the Center for Security and International Studies, says that the U.S. is engaging in cyber espionage just like everyone else. At present, the U.S. does not have an equal in skill. Also, while attribution in cyberspace is difficult, in instances of espionage against, say, the Dalai Llama, who else but the Chinese would attempt to spy on him? It’s simply the process of elimination.
Another reason for the lack of press on U.S. cyber espionage efforts: no one can figure out how to handle espionage in cyberspace. In traditional espionage, when a spy is caught, generally the suspected intelligence agent working at the embassy is ejected from the country. Currently, this is not a tactic employed in relation to instances of cyber espionage.
So, to my commenter, I say this. If the Chinese don’t want to keep getting blamed for cyber espionage, then stop getting caught.