In a bizarre case of some proverbial pots and kettles calling each other black, the U.S. Department of Justice is set to level charges against China for cyber espionage, marking the first time the U.S. has ever leveled criminal charges against a foreign government for economic cyber spying.
Of course, this comes just days—DAYS—after news broke of the NSA’s habit of systematically intercepting network equipment like routers and servers on their way to foreign recipients and altering them with backdoor spying technology.
Naturally, the Snowden files have complicated talks between the U.S. and China over economic cyber espionage, and when the U.S. government has raised the issue, Chinese officials have simply pointed out documents that reveal the U.S. has been spying on China as well.
But is there a difference between economic espionage—stealing patent information from businesses—and foreign intelligence spying? Cyber attacks cost U.S. businesses up to $140 billion and 500,000 jobs a year in losses, according to a joint study conducted by McAfee and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Last year, U.S. security firm Mandiant traced over 140 cyber attacks on U.S. and foreign businesses and organizations to a specific unit in China’s army known widely as the “Comment Crew” or the “Shanghai Group.”
An assessment by the National Intelligence Estimate identified a pretty extensive range of sectors that have been impacted by China’s spying, including finance, IT, aerospace, automotive, and energy, among others. Some of the companies that have been hacked include Google—obviously—as well as drone manufacturers and the makers of nuclear weapons parts.
Chinese cyber spying on businesses has become so rampant at this point that it’s almost a joke—especially considering the fact that the Chinese government routinely denies such accusations, even in the face of hard evidence, which is why I’m almost willing to give the NSA the benefit of the doubt on this one and assume that the tampering with network equipment was to catch the Chinese army in the act. One of the backdoors the NSA created was in the networks of Chinese telecom behemoth Huawei.
Responding last week to details of its server/router interception activities, the NSA claims that it did so only with specific international players, not across the board:
"The implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is arbitrary and unconstrained is false. NSA’s activities are focused and specifically deployed against – and only against – valid foreign intelligence targets in response to intelligence requirements. We are not going to comment on specific, alleged foreign intelligence activities. Public release of purportedly classified material about U.S. intelligence collection systems, without context, further confuses an important issue for the country and jeopardizes human life as well as national security sources and methods."
Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to announce the charges this morning, and the names of the companies hacked will be revealed some time today.
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