As long as there have been human conflicts, there has been spying, the penetration of secrecy to discover the plans and tools of the other side. For most of history, spying was based almost exclusively on physical infiltration, getting human eyes, ears, and hands inside the opponent's wall, or capturing and decoding physical messages. The development of electronic and radio communication added a new level to the game, allowing messages to be intercepted over the wire or out of the air. But never has the access to critical information been as profound or far-reaching as it is today. Digital electronics and the Internet have followed a natural course based upon the inherent desire of human beings to find answers, resulting in a worldwide network that touches every corner of the human data store, including our secrets.
But the latest revelations regarding the ongoing cyber threats from China suggest that more than technology has been changing. Key national security assessment documents, known collectively as the National Intelligence Estimate, reportedly point to China as a major source of recent cyber attacks, and indicate that the attacks are part of a well-orchestrated campaign targeting America's private sector economy.
Everyone, including the United States, feels compelled to engage in some form of electronic spying, and government agencies are routinely secured against attacks, though some inevitably get through. (The Department of Energy is the latest victim of a breach, also traced to China.) But, in a free-wheeling capitalistic economy, the private sector is decentralized, and every company is essentially on its own, creating a world of tempting targets. Companies that used to have to worry only about their like-sized competitors suddenly find themselves up against a massive and sophisticated espionage campaign backed by the resources of China, the world's second biggest economy. Instead of government versus government, it's government versus XYZ, Inc., a fight that is distinctly lopsided.
Stealing America's private sector technologies represents a valuable short cut for China in its effort to fast-track its own economic development. Instead of just buying American companies and technologies, another source of concern, China has shown that it can use cyber-theft to acquire critical technologies directly, without even leaving home. The attacks are far ranging, and many industries have found themselves on the receiving end of security breaches which are now known to be Chinese in origin. Because of the decentralized nature of the private sector, it's an especially worrisome threat, with no easy response. Referring to a recent spate of cyber attacks against major U.S. financial institutions, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used the term "cyber Pearl Harbor."
In addition, it's far more than a threat to America's economic competitiveness. For China it offers a possibly unguarded doorway into the country's vast military-industrial complex, and the myriad of defense technologies and secrets it holds.
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