The coming of China-U.S. cyber war

The cyber warfare between Washington and Beijing is becoming more intense, as Edward Snowden the Whistleblower takes refuge in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of the Middle Kingdom.

China has been identified as the “most active source” of national and industrial cyber espionage in the world today, according to a recent report by U.S. telecommunications giant Verizon. Verizon’s 2013 Data Breach Investigations Report studied more than 47,000 cyber security incidents in 2012 and found that “96 percent of espionage cases were attributed to threat actors in China.”

Speaking on the findings of the report, Wade Baker, the managing principal of RISK Intelligence for Verizon, added, “State-affiliated actors tied to China are the biggest mover in 2012 – we used the word state affiliated that we absolutely know are part of the Chinese government or sponsored by the Chinese government directly.”

Internet censorship in China is already a reality and all flow of information in China is controlled. While more than 700 million Chinese people – approximately 30 percent of total Internet users worldwide – are netizens, Beijing’s Great Firewall is blocking many major social networking and Western news websites, including Facebook, YouTube and Google search. Chinese government’s Internet censorship has long been the target of American criticism and condemnation.

Now, however, the leak of hundreds of classified U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) documents by a former NSA contractor disclosed a wider range of U.S. government surveillance and routine collection of data on all phone calls handled by the major American telephone companies, and NSA’s PRISM program, a clandestine national security electronic surveillance program, is collecting the emails and other web activity of foreigners using major Internet services, including Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, Google, AOL, YouTube, Facebook and Skype.

And according to the Washington Post, the U.S. intelligence analysts search PRISM data using terms intended to identify suspicious communications of targets whom the analysts suspect with 51 percent confidence to not be United States citizens.

Consequently, “it seems that Washington’s much-championed ‘free flow of information,'” writes Brendan O’Reilly of Asia Times, “includes an unquenchable flood of Chinese data into the NSA’s massive information farms. By blocking Facebook and YouTube, Beijing has inadvertently protected the private information of Chinese citizens (at least from Washington), and denied the U.S. government billions of pieces of potentially useful data about the Chinese economy, military, and government.”

Moreover, as O’Reilly points out, “the PRISM program has provided Beijing with a golden justification for continuing to restrict access to certain websites. Washington’s calls for freedom of information are more likely to be viewed in a hypocritical light in the wake of the PRISM program’s public outing.”

And sometimes, politics makes strange bedfellows. Edward Snowden’s decision to go East is ironic: that an American advocate of open information has taken refuge in China. While Beijing’s hand may or may not be behind Edward Snowden’s decision, “if indeed Snowden defected to China,” says O’Reilly, “it would represent a huge coup for China in the emerging realm of cyber rivalry.”

The recent Washington Post and Guardian reports of a vast operation by American intelligence to collect information from the world’s leading Internet firms have revealed the fact that not only Beijing, but also Washington, is conducting an extensive cyber espionage and Internet warfare.

Despite strong public pressure, President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, have failed to reach any agreement on stopping cyber warfare at their recent Sunnyland summit meeting in California.

A Sino-American cyber war is being elevated to the top of the U.S.-China relations. Washington’s PRISM and Beijing’s Great Firewall are just indications of what is to come in an escalating electronic arms race and a developing cyber war. “The winner,” says DeWayne Wickham of USA Today, “could well dominate this planet for decades.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.