Russian hacking of Barack Obama’s emails – a frontier comes into view in US cyber strategy

The fact that the Russian hacking of US President Barack Obama’s email is public information may itself be part of the new US cyber strategy, which uses a host of responses to cyber adversaries. In fact, the New York Times story comes only days after the US secretary of defense laid out a plan of action on a visit to Silicon Valley. The cohesive strategy shows the US trying to bring a set of rules to what’s essentially a lawless frontier, the internet. If the storyline of taming a lawless new land rings a bell, it’s because a sheriff imposing order on a lawless frontier town is the plot of many cowboy movies. It is, in fact, part of the myth of the frontier. And the frontier, as US historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued, is hardwired into the essence of American democracy. While the idea of the US government as white hat cowboys in cyberspace may bring a smile to the face of the some, the idea of a frontier is central to the American understanding of its place in the world, and it’s appropriate as a metaphor for the US, and Americans, to make sense of their place in cyberspace. The heart of the announcement by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is that the government will use cyber power to:

There is plenty of detail to go through in the report, including the matter of a reserve cyber force that’s being assembled. But a fundamental concern; a formalized cyber strategy isn’t just about protecting American power, as much as it is a key plank of the American way, the economically important belief that world-changing invention should be respected and rewarded, not plundered and bootlegged.

Still from the Coen Brothers' True Grit
Still from the Coen Brothers’ True Grit

It’s worth noting, too, that after years of calling China out as the most aggressive actor in the space, Russia’s cyber offensive capabilities have been reevaluated by the US. The US policy approach helps make the world meaningful to the American mind, twenty years after the broad adoption of the World Wide Web and the process of post-Cold War globalization. That period has left American politics somewhat rudderless with no grand narrative for the US in the world.

Out into the unknown  Pictured: Monument Valley (painting by Fred Grayson Sayre)
Out into the unknown
Pictured: Monument Valley (painting by Fred Grayson Sayre)

The White House’s choice to push for order in cyberspace, to set out the rules it will fight to impose, will also help shape American views of the outside world. A frontier brings with it the presumption of geography. There is a near and there is a far. The near is the homeland. In distance are cyber actors like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. In the distance is the Other. But the geography of the frontier can also mean that the “far” is the “far-off,” a place where an overarching political goal or ideal can reside. Like Martin Luther King’s journey to the mountaintop. It can be about a political place, and a people in a collective pursuit of a larger goal (a colony on Mars, Freedom from Want, etc). As easy as it would be for people to laugh of notions of frontiers and cowboys as 1950s nostalgia, the genre is much older. But the hey-day of these movies came a decade after the US stepped into the world in a real way to impose order where it was breaking down. Now, the US is seeking, as an act of self-preservation, to impose order in a chaotic, virtual place where US interests are at stake.

What to do about China’s cyber theft: the politics of shaming

In what Reuters described as an “unusual step,” Canada singled out “Chinese hackers for attacking a key computer network and lodged a protest with Beijing.”

Officials said “a highly sophisticated Chinese state-sponsored actor” had recently broken into the National Research Council. The council, the government’s leading research body, works with major companies such as aircraft and train maker Bombardier Inc.


Canada has reported hacking incidents before, but this was the first time it had singled out China.

The timing of the report is key, as Canada’s foreign minister John Baird was in Beijing, where he had a “full and frank exchange of views” with China’s foreign minister Wang Yi on cyber attacks.

This is similar to the US strategy of public shaming of Chinese officials over claims that hackers in China are systematically – but not neatly – plundering as much US intellectual property as they can.

It would be interesting to learn what advice Sinologists in Canada and the US are giving their governments about this issue today. The notion that public shaming has become a tool in the area of East-West cyber relations shouldn’t surprise. Look at the efforts of China and South Korea to shame Japan over the comfort women issue and other matters related to Japan’s imperial past. 


US-China cyber issue: US adapting to China’s modus operandi

The US is taking a page from China in how it contends with Beijing on the cyber issue. This is significant because every great geopolitical struggle reflects the chemistry of the two powers. The behavior the US embraced with the USSR during the Cold War, or with Western partners, doesn’t work with China. Consequently, the US is adapting to the changed circumstances. Case in point: the US desire to publicly shame China over the cyber-theft issue. Most recently, the indictments from the US Justice Department came days after a visit from PLA General Fang Fenghui.

From the Financial Times:

The US announcement was calculated to cause offence in China, with the FBI publishing “Wanted” notices on its website depicting the alleged hackers, some in full PLA regalia, as common criminals.

“They are pretty annoyed, especially with pictures of guys in uniforms on wanted posters,” says Chris Johnson, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and formerly the CIA’s chief China analyst, who discussed the case with Chinese officials in Beijing this week.

“This touches on the guardians of the regime at a time when the high politics [in Beijing] are very sensitive,” he says.

One powerful Chinese who will be especially offended is General Fang Fenghui, the chief of the general staff of the PLA, who had just been to Washington but was not told of the coming indictments.

“This is a huge loss of face for Fang Fenghui…” said Mr Johnson.

But this is not without precedent from the American side. Recall Obama’s willingness to bring up the issue publicly with China’s president Xi Jinping at the shirtsleeves summit in Sunnyvale California last year. In December, when VP Joe Biden visited Beijing, he met with US reporters whose visas were being denied by China – which would be a source of embarrassment for them.

Basically, the US is learning what’s most effective with China by watching China’s behavior in these matters. In 2012, the day before US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited Beijing, the US ambassador’s car was jostled by protesters.

More pointedly, in 2011 ex-US Defense Secretary Robert Gates visiting China only to have China roll out a new fighter plane on his visit.

As CNN wrote:

China took its latest powerful toy, a new stealth fighter jet, out for its first test spin Tuesday, leading U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to wonder whether the flight was scheduled to coincide with his visit.

“I asked President Hu (Jintao) about it directly,” Gates said at a briefing with reporters in Beijing. “And he said that the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a pre-planned test. And that’s where we left it.”

And the surprises related to China’s military go back further than that. In 2007, a PLA Navy sub popped up amidst a US fleet. The same year China shocked the world by destroyed one of its defunct satellites, sending debris through orbit.

China cyber theft issue: 6 things you didn’t know

In an unprecedented move, the US Justice Department has charged five members of China’s People’s Liberation Army with crimes related to cyber espionage. Below are six aspects of the issue, which is emerging as an obstacle in US-China relations.

1) One of the parties to the US suit is the United Steel Workers. The Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union is part of the USW, the largest industrial union in North America, which has taken the lead on a number of issues affecting manufacturing in the US, including trade issues.

2) China is sensitive to the linkages between its military and its state-owned-enterprises. The cozy relationships between the military and business are being unsettled by Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption push. The US may actually be more resilient in the face of China blowback on the issue. As the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ James Lewis explains: “The United States is less vulnerable to Chinese pressure (even if individual US companies are vulnerable). This is a case where the public good may outweigh the good of individual companies.”

3) The US will pursue the five named in the case. FBI director James Comey said: “If these fellas want to travel out of China on vacation, they should be looking over their shoulder.” US authorities have already lured a wanted Chinese businessman Xiang Le to the island of Saipan, where he was arrested, tried and jailed.

4) The decision to indict the 5 comes after the US was challenged by China to offer proof of the alleged cyber-espionage incidents. The US is looking to ratchet up the issue. “We don’t bring criminal cases, we don’t ask grand juries to indict if we don’t have the evidence,” said Comey. “So we would welcome the opportunity to offer these five Chinese military hackers their day in court. We would prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of 12 who would agree unanimously that this conduct was done by these five guys.”

5) It’s no accident that the companies named in the suit are industrial firms that produce the kind of things needed for China’s infrastructure (including powerplants, steel, metals and solar power). China wants access to the kind of designs that would help it rapidly modernize. The US, facing the soon-to-be larger competitor, has an advantage in intellectual property and design. It can’t afford to let this advantage be stolen by its major competitor.

6) Obama had brought up the issue of cyber trade-secret theft to Xi Jinping in the June 2013, the same week Edward Snowden revealed himself and went public with his leaks from the NSA.