The Chinese government exploded with rage this week when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced formal espionage charges against five officers of the People's Liberation Army. The charges were "made up" and the U.S. does the same thing and there would be retaliation, the Chinese foreign affairs department told the U.S. ambassador in Beijing. For starters, China was suspending its participation alongside the U.S. in an anti-cyber-theft group.
The U.S. government accused the five Chinese officers of breaking into computers of the Westinghouse company, aluminum producer Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies Inc., U.S. subsidiaries of SolarWorld AG, the United States Steel Corp. and a steel workers union.
U.S. companies have for years been asking their government to stop the hacker squad of the Chinese army from breaking into their computers and stealing their trade secrets. U.S. authorities have raised the matter with Chinese authorities from time to time but the hacking continued. The laying of charges will probably not stop the hacking, because the accused hackers will simply stay in China and not appear for trial in the U.S. But the gesture has clearly caught the attention of the Chinese government.
Morally and politically, the U.S. government hasn't a leg to stand on in this regard. It claims the right to intercept electronic communications among people who are not U.S. citizens wherever it can -- and that is almost everywhere. It intercepts the communications of friend and foe alike, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Brazilian President Dilma Roussef learned through the Edward Snowden disclosures. The U.S. National Security Agency, in partnership with similar electronic eavesdropping agencies of Canada, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand, violates privacy around the world continuously and on a massive scale. U.S. complaints about China peeking inside the computers of U.S. companies have the hollow sound of the pot calling the kettle black.
Neither charges in the U.S. justice system nor explosions of rage in Beijing will advance the case very far. The techniques of breaking into computers are constantly being refined by corporate and governmental information-technology departments around the world and by freelance hackers who enjoy the challenges of circumventing anti-hacking systems. Even if China, the U.S. and others agreed to scale back their cyber-espionage, they cannot readily rein in the rogue governments and the freelancers.
Just this week, police in Canada and 15 other countries swooped down on users of a program called Blackshades that allows the operator of a home computer to plant software in someone else's computer through an email message and then use the target computer to spy on its owner. Blackshades is a publicly available retail product. Other methods have been used to hack into the computers of the Canadian Revenue Agency, the Target department store customer accounts and many other organizations. That is the world we live in.
People and organizations with secrets to keep must figure out for themselves how to do that. The U.S. government already knows this in one sense, ever since Bradley Manning delivered a vast collection of State Department cables to Wikileaks and since Edward Snowden started distributing the files of the NSA. The habits of a lifetime are not easily discarded, however: Governments and corporations still store secrets on their computers and are still astonished by their disclosure.
In an earlier era, people and organizations learned the hard way some messages can be put in writing but others are best delivered verbally, because a written record may return to haunt you in a way spoken remarks do not. The hard realities of the digital age may require a sophisticated grasp of which information should be made available to the hackers and which should not. Keeping all your secrets in the computer is quick and convenient for companies and for government departments, and it's also really helpful to the hackers.