Charles Dharapak, Associated Press
Press materials are displayed on a table of the Justice Department in Washington, Monday, May 19, 2014, before Attorney General Eric Holder was to speak at a news conference. Holder was announcing that a U.S. grand jury has charged five Chinese hackers with economic espionage and trade secret theft, the first-of-its-kind criminal charges against Chinese military officials in an international cyber-espionage case.
The Obama administration indicted five Chinese military officials for online spying this past Monday. Given the U.S.’s own history of cyberspying, the decision to indict has left some commentators wondering whether the Obama administration's actions are justified or hypocritical.
The Obama administration says that the Chinese were spying on U.S. businesses, hurting the economy and the job market, while any surveillance that the U.S. has engaged in is strictly in the interest of national security, reports William Wan of the Washington Post.
It’s part of a campaign wherein the “Obama administration (will) hold China accountable for what officials say is a growing campaign of commercial cyberspying,” wrote Ellen Nakashima of the Washington Post.
Even after making this distinction between national security surveillance and spying for commercial gain, there might be room for criminal charges against the U.S. It would be extreme, but China does have the ability "to slap the U.S. government right back with criminal charges of its own,” according to Wan.
If China does choose to respond, it could be damaging in a number of ways, Wan continued.
“China has an unfortunately rich menu of options for retaliation,” wrote Wan, listing potential economic and diplomatic consequences. “China has shown in the past it’s not afraid to wield its colossal economy as a cudgel."
These indictments might provoke retaliation without any effective results, some scholars have argued.
“The U.S. government understands that the likelihood of successfully prosecuting any of these individuals is effectively nil,” Indiana University fellow David Fidler told NBC News.
“The proper way to respond to cyber war is to use the tools of statecraft to make China pay a political and economic price. A criminal indictment against Wang Dong and comrades (the accused cyberspies) is not such a price,” according to The Wall Street Journal. “The U.S. should respond with its own cyber battle plan that attacks Chinese targets and forces China to play defense rather than devote all of its resources to hacking U.S. targets.”
Even then, the Journal continues, “China might still continue its cyber assault, calculating that the potential benefits outweigh the costs. We can say with certainty that an indictment of five junior PLA hackers will be no deterrent at all.”
Despite various risks of Chinese retaliation and a general consensus that the indictment won’t have long-term effects, some believe that punishing the spies is the right thing to do.
“There is logic to what the Obama administration is doing, and though it’s loaded with risk, it’s on balance a good move, maybe even a necessary one,” wrote Fred Kaplan of Slate. Kaplan argued that the Chinese have been blatantly stealing U.S. secrets for years, ignoring any calls for dialogue on the subject. It is time, wrote Kaplan, for the U.S. to re-emphasize that economic espionage is not acceptable.
“(The Chinese) have resisted all such calls for negotiation. Maybe the indictment will shock them into a dialogue. Maybe not. It’s worth a shot.”
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According to NBC, cyber-espionage targeted at the U.S. will cost various American companies and industries approximately $100 billion every year.
“This 21st century burglary has to stop,” David Hickton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said to NBC. “This prosecution vindicates hard working men and women in Western Pennsylvania and around the world who play by the rules and deserve a fair shot and a level playing field.”
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2