20 May 2014

Why US state spying is good – and Chinese state spying is bad

China has, predictably enough, come out fighting following news that five of its army officers have been charged by the FBI, which alleges they hacked into US companies to steal commercially sensitive information.

China has always responded to accusations of state-sponsored hacking by arguing that it is as much a victim as any other country, and insisting that the allegations against its service personnel are groundless. Whatever the rhetoric, it’s hard to see a scenario in which any of the accused is going to be boarding a plane to face a US court any time soon.


Perhaps the US thinks it can catch them as they travel through a jurisdiction with which America has an extradition treaty. Even if the suspects are dumb enough to do so, an arrest would spark a situation for which the phrase “diplomatic incident” would be woefully inadequate.

So, with no real chance of arrest, why did the FBI go public with allegations against specific individuals?

Privately I’ve been shown several reports from tech security companies which have contained names and photographs of Chinese state-sponsored hackers believed to be responsible for breaking into western companies’ computer networks to steal information.

Yet when the reports are released, the names and photos are left out. Why?

It’s partly because in cyberspace, attribution is a killer: the technology throws up so many opportunities to hide and obfuscate identity that finger-pointing with 100 per cent certainty is a risky business. Security firm Mandiant went further than anyone when they identified a group of hackers they claimed were behind hacks on the New York Times – and even there they stopped short of naming names.

FBI on the offensive

So it’s not that the FBI have more info than the tech security companies – it’s just that the FBI felt solid enough to go public with the names.

There could be any number of reasons behind this sudden shift to the offensive approach by the FBI. But it must be seen in the wider political context post-Snowden. From early on, the response by US spy agencies to Snowden’s revelations included an assertion that they do not spy for commercial gain.

Spying for state security is OK, they argued (in fact, that’s what American taxpayers pay us for), but spying to help US firms make a buck? No sir.

Seen from that angle, these allegations from the FBI fulfil a neat purpose: highlighting that there are different types of spying, and encouraging the public to make a qualitative distinction between US state spying (national security = good) and Chinese state spying (commercial espionage = bad).

Whether it’s a distinction that will take root remains to be seen.

Follow @geoffwhite247 on Twitter

6 reader comments

  1. Neale Foulds says:

    It’s not just “commercial gain”. China’s spying activities have helped the country close the technology gap much more rapidly than would have been the case otherwise. China has a long way still to go, but it’s like starting a marathon, and then jumping a fence half way through to skip the middle section and finish at the same time as the front runners.

  2. george koo says:

    You raised a legitimate question. Namely is there justifiable cyber hacking vs. unjustifiable hacking? Are we living in a world where the American definition of good and evil is the absolute final word?

    Most of the public do not have the expertise to make an independent judgement as to who is doing what in cyberspace. Thanks to Mr. Snowden’s revelations, at least we now know that the U.S. is by far the most active player in cyber hacking. It’s nice to be assured by our government that when we hack, our hearts are pure with the best of intentions.

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    It’s the same old Washington two-step:

    We do it – You can’t.

    It’s a sort of Gulf of Tonkin incident in cyberspace.

    There’s nothing new about this kind of US hypocrisy. Only the medium has changed.

    By now the Yanks are so predictable it is hilarious. Ask Ed Snowden.

  4. Neil Craig says:

    They are running the risk the Chinese will retaliate by naming American hackers. Which would probably be a good thing all round – make it more difficult for ALL governments to spy on us.

    Incidentally when it comes to reporting foreign government wrongdoing why has C4 not mentioned that US vice president Joe Biden’s son has just been put on the board of Ukraine’s gas company, by the undemocratic government put in power by $5 bn of US funding?

    Perhaps the line between spying for national interest and for companies is not so easy to determine, either way round.

  5. Fernando Ardenghi, Buenos Aires, Argentina says:

    Last year, Diario Clarin, newspaper from Argentina, had published the article “Espionage is for economic interests, not terrorism” during the NSA scandal.
    The journalist Mr. Glenn Greenwald, who had published leaked documents by Snowden at The Guardian, spoke with Clarin in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).


    I had been reading some classified information for years and the majority of those Top Secret documents, I think, are really stupidities, like gossip news published in women’s magazines. The only one information I know that could cause serious commotion among population of North Hemisphere’s countries; with possible mass flight from their countries, loss of many lives, murder and mass disturbances is: 90% of World Population in North Hemisphere would die by 2050 due to climate change (no water, no food)
    Perhaps by 2030, some rich countries like U.S., Canada, U.K., France, Germany and Russia plan to send some of their young people (less than 30 years old, well educated, white skin and high I.Q. levels) to live in South American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and others).

    Best place to live will be South America by 2050.

  6. Neil Craig says:

    Fernando if any of the proponents of the global warming fraud had any slightest belief in it the place US citizens would be advised to flee to would be somewhere colder. That is not south America.

    Canada is a rather large place, currently lightly settled because it is cold. Heat would make it warmer.

    Of course we know that they know catastrophic warming is simply a total fraud, designed to keep us scared and obedient.

    Like all the other scare stories politicians in power & their media whores push, it is a lie. However what can now be proven, because the scare has been going for so long despite no warming, is that they know it is a lie.

    Which in turn proves that the politicians in power and their media whores are wholly, completely and totally corrupt thieves, willing to tell any lie, no matter how many they murder (10 million minimum so far for warming) and how much they impoverish us.

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