There has been plenty of writing about the positive effect that former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden has had as a result of his decision to reveal information on a bulk phone records collection program, which has been collecting the records of all Americans. But there has been much condemnation for his decision to reveal information on how the United States is engaged in hacking or offensive cyber operations against China.
What has been generally suggested is that he had damaged efforts by the US to escalate the response to Chinese hacking. The disclosures on cyber operations revealed tactics or operations being used against China, which the country will now be able to potentially thwart.
Efforts to address hacking do not, however, appear to be all that damaged. The New York Times reports the following:
…[T]he disclosures changed the discussion between the top officials at the Pentagon and the State Department and their Chinese counterparts in quiet meetings intended to work out what one official called “an understanding of rules of the road, norms of behavior,” for China and the United States… [emphasis added]
US government officials realized that hypocrisy had been exposed. Both countries could now be said to engage in hacking. As one senior administration official said to the Times, “We clearly don’t occupy the moral high ground that we once thought we did.”
This forced President Barack Obama’s administration “quietly” hold “an extraordinary briefing for the Chinese military leadership on a subject officials have rarely discussed in public”—the Pentagon’s doctrine for “defending” against cyber attacks with China.
It was especially necessary because the government is tripling “the number of American cyber warriors to 6,000 by the end of 2016, a force that will include new teams the Pentagon plans to deploy to each military combatant command around the world.” And the US hoped, according to the Times, that by talking to the Chinese, their own military officials might share details on ”People’s Liberation Army units that are believed to be behind the escalating attacks on American corporations and government networks.”
Obama administration officials like to argue that the US’s operations are uniquely different than Chinese operations, which are targeting “intellectual property from Silicon Valley, military contractors and energy firms.” Yet, how does one explain this focus of the NSA?
…[U]nderstanding how the [Huawei] firm operates will pay dividends in the future. In the past, the network infrastructure business has been dominated by Western firms, but the Chinese are working to make American and Western firms “less relevant”. That Chinese push is beginning to open up technology standards that were long determined by US companies, and China is controlling an increasing amount of the flow of information on the net…
Corporate secrets were clearly targeted and likely stolen in these operations because it has been determined that it is in the “national interest” or “national security” of the US to aggressively fight to maintain the dominance of Western companies so that control and access to networks around the globe is not lost.
Furthermore, Der Spiegel reported in March that the NSA targeted Chinese telecommunications company Huawei with a “special unit” that infiltrated the company’s network and “copied a list of 1,400 customers as well as internal documents providing training to engineers on the use of Huawei products, among other things.” The NSA unit even accessed the “secret source code of individual Huawei products” with involvement of the FBI and the White House’s own intelligence coordinator.
After this was disclosed, Huawei called for “standards” to be established. Huawei executive told Forbes, “What we naturally condemn is any entity that penetrates corporate networks, monitors private corporate communication and stealing proprietary information for us to exploit other networks.”
No company wants to suffer or become collateral damage in a cyber war between China and the United States.
The world is better off if these two major powers are working to establish anything remotely close to “rules.” It is pointed out in the Times story that cyber operations have been employed for military purposes for years now. The Chinese have developed such capabilities. Other countries have been working on such capabilities. And, in recent years, the US has developed the ability to attack a country’s nuclear energy infrastructure, as it did with Stuxnet against Iran.
If Snowden plays any meaningful role in stalling or calming the cyber warfare between the Chinese and US, which should be considered a threat to consumers who use products either country manages to compromise, this is positive. And, certainly, there should be no illusions. The US was not going to do this without someone like Snowden blowing the whistle and it should be to his credit that he pushed the Obama administration to engage in diplomacy.