In the recent China/Google affair, one could be forgiven for missing the forest for the trees: After all, hacking events occur regularly, and often originate out of China. What they do not often involve, however, are massively coordinated, unprecedentedly sophisticated attacks against a wide spectrum of American internet companies targeting highly-valuable intellectual property and...oops...account information of Chinese human rights activists.
One could therefore also be forgiven for missing the implications of these attacks: The Chinese government brazenly, and without provocation, attacked American property potentially worth billions of dollars - much of it on American soil - in ways that might adversely impact a critical sector of the US economy, not to mention potentially compromising the safety of some Chinese-American activists. The question I put to us is this: How should we respond?
Before we begin to examine the question in detail, I would like to present a hypothetical case in point: Imagine that the monetary value of the stolen information was instead embodied in a physical infrastructure - let's arbitrarily assign an easy value and say it's a billion-dollar skyscraper in downtown San Jose (although the info is probably worth a lot more than a billion, in the long-run). Maybe it's not the biggest or most beautiful skyscraper, but it looks good enough to attract tenants, and it's worth a billion dollars.
Now imagine that, for some reason, there's nobody in the building or anywhere near it, but there are plenty of people within visual range. Nor were there any dangerous materials used in the construction of the building, because it's so advanced. So then a fully-fueled 747 (remote-controlled, with no crew or passengers) is slammed into this skyscraper, causing it to collapse with the entire world looking on. The total economic consequences of the attack are, let's say, exactly what the total consequences of the cyber-attacks will be.
If every detail of the operation points to it being the work of the Chinese government, and no remotely sensible alternative explanation is found, what do you do? What is the proper response to such a flagrant and totally unprovoked outrage?
Even though no one is hurt or dies in this scenario (and we can stipulate there were no heart-attacks or other complications from fear), I am quite certain the American public would be slightly more insensed by it and serious in considering how to address it than the current situation. In fact, I am obviously being flippantly understated: We would be at DEFCON 1, strategic nuclear missiles would be fully fueled and aimed at China, nuclear-armed stealth bombers would be in the air, boomer and aircraft carrier battle groups would be deployed to the East Pacific, and Air Force One would be in the air.
Clearly that is not called for in this case (sorry, Mr. Rohrabacher), but it does put in perspective how we would treat a physical attack with the exact same level of effective damage as the one that actually occurred. So let's consider a hypothetical situation closer in nature to what the PRC actually did: There's a bank in San Jose whose vault contains huge stacks of money equivalent to the value of the stolen information.
Now, the People's Liberation Army (or Navy, or however they're organized) conducts an amphibious landing in the South Bay and proceeds in force to the bank, where they bust open the doors, waltz past the shocked employees, break open the vault, and walks out with the cash. They are all wearing uniforms of the Chinese military, except that the insignia exactly identifying them as such are partially covered.
They proceed back to their landing craft, and their ship returns to China with the whole world watching them every step of the way. Just to truly match the level of brazenness, let's say they are then given a ticker-tape parade in Beijing while the Chinese government denies responsibility for the raid. How would you respond to that?
Better yet, let's make this more personal: Translate that money into jobs that Americans will not have in the future because of the theft, and imagine you are one of the people who will be (or remain) unemployed as a result. You lose your house and car, your marriage dissolves, and you end up doing manual labor for food and the rent for a 1-room apartment above, beneath, and surrounded by crack dens...all because a handful of unelected thugs literally halfway around the world decided they wanted to fuck your country in the ass after it had helped them rebuild from a totalitarian wasteland into a burgeoning economy. How would you want your country to respond to that?
Make no mistake, people - this was an attack on the United States by China, and it was especially egregious in being launched at our "best and brightest" leading lights of the technology economy. They tried - and apparently in many cases, succeeded - to steal what we have spent decades carefully cultivating through investment in our universities. Our nation has done a lot for China at our own expense, and the repayment for the relationship we led in cultivating - a relationship without which their current advantages would not exist - is that the regime in Beijing is no longer content to wait for us to mindlessly hand them the fruits of our creativity: Rather, they reach into our pockets and grasp.
Perhaps the most critical question in determining this is a practical one: How do we deter China from engaging in this kind of aggression? What consequences would be sufficient to prevent recurrences, and yet remain within the bounds of appropriate response?
Clearly a response of some kind is demanded, and indeed the State Department has already said it intends to file a formal complaint. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to be sufficient: The Chinese government, being an oligarchic police state, deals with international affairs on a strictly power-politic basis. A diplomatic complaint, while it may cause them some extra paperwork, has no effective consequences, and therefore will not divert the course of Chinese government policy by one iota. But as anything more than that directly from our government (beyond, perhaps, some WTO complaints) would look petty, that will have to be sufficient...publicly.
But my question goes beyond explicit government policy and the public sector: What should we do? What should Americans do? For the vast majority of us, there is nothing we really can do - you would be more likely to find a vegan restaurant in Alabama than an economically viable way of boycotting Chinese goods. But there are some among us with certain...skills...that would, for them, make the question of how to respond far more than an academic exercise.
And, of course, our military/intelligence apparatus can always respond clandestinely - although, since that might actually do something to protect the country, I suspect they might consider it a matter of principle not to.
While I cannot claim to be an expert in international law, I think the attack on Silicon Valley fully entitles us to respond in a fashion suited to the provocation: Information warfare. Not only is our national security apparatus entitled to retaliate against Chinese government information systems, but since their intrusions were likely on behalf of domestic business interests, I think it perfectly justifiable if the affected industries were more "proactive" in defending their property and the security of their customers.
- One particularly appealing scenario is something I realize would be, under normal circumstances, preposterous, but I think is at least possible if the right pool of skills and talent were dedicated to the problem and given sufficient resources: Crash the Great Firewall, and do it in such a way that the internet access of Chinese end-users is preserved. This would teach the Chinese government an important lesson: That the internet either has rules or it doesn't, and if they choose the latter, they forfeit their ability to control it.
- Another scenario, which is not in fact exclusive to the first, would be a reinterpretation of the precipitating attack: They intruded on us to steal valuable information to use for their own benefit at our expense, so if embarrassing or sensitive information were obtained from Chinese government servers and publicized - possibly to Chinese internet users, if the first scenario is also applied - that could be one tailored response.
- The third, also not exclusive to any of the others, would be to trap the Chinese government into mounting another intrusion - perhaps by seeding enticing information across various parts of the internet - but have already emplaced clandestine network resources within the Great Firewall to be able to exactly trace the attacks and report back. This is not as futile as it may sound: A Westerner would assume that a government would use nth-degree third-party agents to launch such attacks, and that their operations would trace to some generic warehouse with total deniability, but I think it a serious possibility the Chinese government is ballsy (and stupid) enough to be doing this right out of a government building, on a government or military network. But even if they weren't, valuable information could be gained.
Any of these scenarios would be most effective if publicized, since the Chinese government is highly uncomfortable and disoriented having to deal with events in a public forum. That Google chose to reveal their intrusions must have been somewhat surprising to them, and that is an important fact that can be used against them: Keeping as much information as possible about developments in this arena public would keep them off-balance, stumbling to deny both the consequences of a retaliatory strike and their own probably ham-handed response, thus embarrassing themselves further and destabilizing their operations. There is no reason, furthermore, that such destabilization cannot be achieved on an ongoing, dynamic basis.
China has declared information war on the United States, and so far we've been content to be a target. Personally, I don't like bullies, and I don't care what flag they wave in my face when they're trying to fuck with me or my country: Our economy has hemmorhaged jobs and money directly into the pockets of the bastards who rule that captive nation with an iron fist, and now they're not even content with that - they have moved to direct, outright robbery of our people, and it should not stand. It should not be tolerated.