The hackers: China and the U.S. are both pros at cyberspying

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The Justice Department’s announcement Monday of grand jury indictments of five officials of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for spying on Pittsburgh entities is a pivotal development between the two countries, even if the case goes nowhere.

Through cyberspying, the PLA is charged with stealing data from Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, U.S. Steel, Westinghouse Electric and the United Steelworkers International Union — all in or near Pittsburgh — and SolarWorld, a German firm with a facility in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Named in the indictments were: Gu Chunhui, Huang Zhenyu, Sun Kailiang, Wang Dong and Wen Xinyu. All are said to be part of the PLA’s notorious Unit 61398, based in Shanghai and suspected of hacking into the computer networks of more than 100 Western firms in pursuit of corporate secrets.

None of the suspects is likely to face trial in the United States. So what was the point of the announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania David Hickton?

First, it was to say to the Chinese, “We know what you are doing and we consider it illegal.” Second, it was to say to Americans, and particularly to U.S. companies, “We know what the Chinese are doing and we do not hesitate to spell it out.” It isn’t clear, however, why the Obama administration chose to use the Justice Department to convey the messages, rather than a high-visibility news release.

For President Barack Obama, the case constitutes a defense for his own criticized domestic and international surveillance program. It allows the administration to maintain that it would not have gotten this information without the National Security Agency.

Yet the United States spies on Chinese and commercial targets itself, including the Brazilian petroleum giant Petrobras and the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei.

What is not known is whether the NSA shares what it collects on commercial entities with U.S. companies. Although the Obama administration contends it does not, the Chinese, under their system, make no sharp distinction between governmental and commercial bodies.

Regardless of what happens now, the United States still owes China more than a trillion dollars and trade between the two countries will remain vigorous. Unfortunately, China’s response to the indictments was to cut off a military dialogue on cyber warfare.

Whether anything was likely to come of the effort, it was nonetheless a point of contact between the two countries that could tamp down an escalation of attacks and counterattacks over a case such as this. That chance for discussion now appears to be lost, at least for the moment.

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