The Pentagon has just released the latest version of an annual report looking at China’s military capacity, and as you might expect, a big chunk of it is concerned with Beijing’s ability to conduct cyberspace operations:
The information targeted could potentially be used to benefit China’s defense industry, high technology industries, policymaker interest in U.S. leadership thinking on key China issues, and military planners building a picture of U.S. network defense networks, logistics, and related military capabilities that could be exploited during a crisis.
The 84-page white paper goes on to describe how China’s growing interest in cyber could allow it to disable or disrupt the United States in the event of a shooting war. We’ve seen some of this rhetoric filter into the national debate over cybersecurity. Gaining access to U.S. power grids, public health systems, and transportation networks is the first step to taking those assets offline.
But that doesn’t really explain some of the other hacking attempts that have been attributed to the Chinese government. What possible military value could there be to hacking The Washington Post, for instance? Where does that fit in, strategically?
To answer that question, maybe we need to reverse our perspective.
“Unlike the Chinese,” said Adam Segal, a cybersecurity scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, “we don’t have a comprehensive view of national power. So, the DoD isn’t going to spend too much time talking about the links between (economic espionage) and future military power.”
But maybe we should. After all, if China sees a connection there, what’s to say its next actions won’t be informed by it? Just because the American mind interprets a divide between public and private institutions doesn’t mean that its opponents will respect that distinction.
The media world provides the perfect case. While most of us regard the press as independent from -- or even opposed to -- government, news organizations in China aren’t an example of power distributed. Just the opposite. And if you’re a Chinese hacker whose experience is that there’s no daylight between media and bureaucracy, then it’d make total sense to think that penetrating one will get you inside the other. That may not be how journalism actually works in the United States, but that’s not the point. The point is that establishing whether Beijing thinks this way is a prerequisite to disrupting its activities.
I’m not the first to raise this issue. As The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wrote back in February, what the Chinese are looking for is the secret to how Washington functions :
The Chinese look at Washington, and they think there must be some document somewhere, some flowchart saved on a computer in the basement of some think tank, that lays it all out. Because in China, there would be. In China, someone would be in charge. There would be a plan somewhere. It would probably last for many years. It would be at least partially followed.
Thing is, there is no such document -- only a collection of ordinary humans squabbling for territory and resources. Americans take one look at Congress and grasp that intuitively; but foreign observers might not. And that’s valuable intelligence right there.
It’s one thing to know your opponent. It’s another to understand the way in which you know your opponent. And it’s something else entirely if your opponent is wise to it, too.