A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

China, NSA, PRISM, and Cyber Attacks

That must be a skeleton key
he's got in his claws.
I don't want to get too far off base from the central theme of this blog, but what has been happening in the news is relevant in some important ways to the notion of what the internet means and how we communicate.  So like the sock-puppet concern, the current news fits into our wider context.

In a nutshell what has happened over the last few days, of course, is that separate leaks have revealed some interesting things about the extent to which data has been collected by the NSA and how much the Obama administration has been focused on intelligence gathering and cyber warfare.

We now know that phone records for Verizon for the last 90 days have been vacuumed up and (let's face it) the only credible interpretation of the one piece of evidence we can see points to the idea that this data collection has been going on well past the last 90 days and not just at Verizon.  Alongside of that was the separate revelation that all server data at Google, Apple, AOL, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. has been vacuumed up by the NSA as well.

Maybe someone really is reading my blog!

(Or not.)

A really bad movie.
Now today comes yet another leak.  This time it is in connection with Obama's cybersecurity executive order.  Basically, and unsurprisingly, it contains the revelation that not only did the President authorize cybersecurity measures but also directed agencies to identify possible targets for cyber attack should the need arise.  These attacks would be designed to be executed "with little or no warning" and to result in "potential effects ranging from subtle to severely damaging."

There is a lot to take in about the surveillance and collection of data regarding legal activity of US citizens and this explicit interest the President has in offensive cyber warfare capacity.  But one thing I have been focused on is the timing of all this news.

Today (June 7) Obama began his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.  Of course the recent attacks on US targets by Chinese military hackers (which China has unconvincingly tried to deny) was bound to be on the agenda.  This conversation is a little more ticklish in light of recent news.

It is a lot harder to blast China for its hacking when we have been secretly soaking up the data of all our citizens for the last several years, all in the name of "National Security".  And it is even harder to shame China for its foreign adventures in hacking when we have drawn up a target list for attack if the need arises.   Now I am not saying that any of these things are necessarily unwarranted.  The needs of our national security policy are driven by realities I will never know, so I can't really second guess whether these actions which have come to light are overkill or not.  And cyber warfare is a modern reality.  It would be foolish to think that we were not at least preparing for cyber attacks in case the need arose.

But the explicit reminder of this state of affairs takes a great deal of moral steam away from the US as it prepares to lecture China on its "evil ways".  These leaks could not have come at a worse time for President Obama nor at a better time for China's President.

So I have started to wonder if these leaks may have been made by the Chinese or with the help of the Chinese.

During the 2008 Presidential Campaign, the Chinese government had access to secret data from both the Obama Campaign and the McCain Campaign.  The breach was so large, a Chinese diplomat made the mistake of protesting a letter John McCain had written to the new President of Taiwan while it was still in draft form on McCain's computer.   The Chinese clearly had the inside scoop in 2008.  There is no reason to think that this kind of penetration and surveillance is not part of their national security strategy.

So if you connect the dots
  -- that the Chinese have had access to very privileged information in the past
  -- that the Chinese continue to conduct hundreds of cyber attacks (mostly hacking) from military posts in China
  -- that the US government has expressed its concern about shoring up our cybersecurity

it makes me wonder if China does not in fact already pwn us.

(Pwn, pronounced "pown" is geek speak [technically "leet-speak"] implying humiliation or domination of a rival, probably based on the hasty typo "pwned" when trying to type "owned" at the end of a crushing win in a video game.)

Wrong thinking will
be punished.

All we know is China is very aggressive with its covert cyber activities and that they have had some well publicized successes.  What if they have really been so successful that they could leak our own government's secrets at a time most opportune for them?  And wouldn't it be quite a show of force for them to release information about Obama's cybersecurity program on the day the two are meeting about these matters?  It would prove to be both a subtle and unmistakable message at the same time.  It would really hit home with those in the know, while leaving the general public blissfully unaware of the muscle flexing they had just done.

This would be very consistent with Chinese philosophy about the importance of demonstrating your strength.  It would be a very clear message to those who mattered most.  And it would sail by largely unnoticed by the masses, which would mean it wouldn't stir up resentment or agitate public opinion.

If this is true (and I'm just speculating), it would mean lots of things.

First of all it would mean that US cybersecurity is a mess.  It would also mean that drastic measures on the part of the NSA would be called for (and even approved of if citizens knew the score).  If the only way we could identify the degree to which China owned our networks was to vacuum them up and analyze them in detail, most Americans would be very happy to permit the government to do this.   But of course no President would go to the American people and admit this state of affairs.  They would, however, take extreme action knowing it was essential to reclaiming our security.

It would also mean that we are in a world of hurt in our power relationship with the Chinese.  We already know that they have amassed a great deal of economic power very quickly.  Up until the financial crisis, China was the biggest holder of US debt (now it's our own Treasury).  They have used their rapid industrialization to amass a great deal of money.  But so far the US is still the largest economy on the planet and we have been protected from any truly ugly monetary arm twisting from China by dint of the fact that they need us as much as we need them (at least right now).  But if they achieve global dominance in cyberspace it would be yet another way for them to leverage their growing power.

And if the Obama administration is aware of the level of dominance that China has achieved, they have to be very concerned about the likelihood of being backed into a strategic corner by this suddenly very powerful player on the world stage.  A little show of strength from China, like the leak of some top secret info, would be very unnerving to the US and yet most of us would never hear about it.  It's not like Obama is going to run and tattle on China for what they have done -- it would only prove how much they have us pinned to the mat.

There are other possibilities, too.  The leaks could be unrelated to the Chinese and the timing with the visit of the Chinese President could be either coincidental or chosen specifically but not by the Chinese.  But even the possibility that these events are related to the growing power of China is a thought I find very unnerving.

If we have been upset to find that the NSA has been collecting our emails and cat videos, imagine how we would feel living in China where they can not even successfully Google "Tianamen Square" or "Tank Man Photo".

The democratizing power of one-to-many communication (and its technology multiplying effect) is one of the themes of this blog, so the idea that China may be growing into a world information system superpower is relevant to the subject matter considered here besides just being wet-your-pants scary.

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