Indictments In-schmightments

Indictments against Chinese officials for hacking into U.S. companies is a typical government move of confusing motion with action. What’s the point of indictments if the targets will never see the inside of a prison cell because they’ll never be tried because they’ll never be extradited?

“Well we have this paper and held a press conference, so…TIGER BLOOD!”

Indictments are a completely impractical move that is designed to show some level of resolve, but is likely to cost both the government and U.S. private industry more than has been anticipated. I do not doubt that someone has attempted to calculate just how expensive and painful the retaliation may be, but if we have learned anything in the last few years it is that such estimates are inevitably low-balled because we underestimate our adversaries and how pervasive technology has become.

It is acknowledged that the Chinese are widely and deeply embedded into computer systems in the U.S. For every intrusion we know about there are others that are unknown to us. We can warn and mitigate against damage or destruction the case of the former, but we have no idea how painful if not crippling the latter may be. To paraphrase Mike Tyson: Everyone thinks they know how things will go down until they get punched in the face.

China is a very large market for U.S. technology (legitimately obtained). What happens when their government decides to not stroke checks to U.S. companies anymore? At what point do U.S. tech giants and the Chamber of Commerce start lobbying our government to stop being such hard-asses? China is not a monolith, but like any sufficiently large entity, once its momentum shifts, the impact is not trivial.

China is a serious perpetrator in this domain, but it is not the only one. Once again: we’re only focusing on China ref cyberspace because we’re focused on (possibly) fighting China in meat-space (someday). Notice that we’re not having this conversation in French.

China is going to react to these events, and it is going to go badly for us in a public way. What would have been a better play?

Start Swinging. If the government is standing squarely behind the idea that this sort of action should stop, it should stop talking and start fighting. We know how to fight secret wars and proxy wars; it’s what all the political re-treads trying to make a name in “cyber” did back in the day when our adversary was another country with a red flag. Put that legacy future thinking to good use for a change and figure out how to inflict pain without actually delivering knock-out punches (remember, in cyberspace you can deny everything).

Change the Game. The U.S. is one of the few countries that doesn’t use its national security capabilities to the benefit of private industry. Its PRIVATE industry and they’re on their own, though we’ve been trying to make sure they take to a level playing field. The idea that we’re going to bring about some kind of international norm in this regard is a pipe dream, so stop smoking: get government out of the fair play business and let companies compete internationally on par with their competitors.

“But Mike, that like, leads to bribes and stuff.”

That’s an ugly word, but actions that “facilitate” deals is pretty much how most of the rest of the world works. We can maintain this white-hat sense of dignity and continue to lose, or we can stop playing that game and come up with one that we can win.

Horse Head in Bed. If you have enough information to indict someone you have enough information to influence them without a big public scene. In the Godfather Don Corleone didn’t send a bunch of muscle to the Woltz studios to get Johnny Fontane his movie role, he did this instead. Wang Dong isn’t a rich international jet-setter, but he has a house or flat, a bank account, and a myriad of other things that can be touched. Is that going to change Chinese policy? No. Is putting a horse head in the beds of everyone in Unit 61398 going to influence policy? It might give them pause, which is more than is happening now because they think they can’t be touched.

We can influence Chinese behavior in any number of ways, but in over two decades of being involved in these issues I have yet to come across an administration that was prepared to go to blows over hacking. Hacking is what the government gets concerned about because there isn’t a shooting war going on. We have brought a knife to a…fight where our opponent could pull out any number of weapons more powerful than a knife. We’re not prepared for this.