Hack attack


Reports that China’s military has a cyber-warfare unit in Shanghai that is dedicated to hacking into the computer systems of American institutions is chilling but not surprising.

China’s foreign ministry denied a report in this week’s New York Times about the conclusions of a new study by Mandiant, an American security firm. The company tracked hacking activity to the area of an office building controlled by the Chinese military.

By hacking into U.S. information systems involved in everything from the production of Coca-Cola to electrical grids, water systems, railroads, and government agencies, the People’s Liberation Army has shown its capacity not only to steal secrets, but also to disrupt operations. Mandiant says the PLA has been doing it since 2006; the suspicion is that a large number of American commercial secrets have been pilfered and passed along to Chinese companies.

Even Americans who can’t imagine a war between the United States and China ought to be alarmed. The fact that Chinese military hackers could disable, in a wartime situation, critical pieces of U.S. infrastructure or even defense readiness is disturbing.

Yet just as with nuclear weapons and the notion of mutually assured destruction, it is likely that America’s cyber warriors have drawn an equally lethal bead on Chinese capacities and infrastructure. It is tempting for Americans to react angrily and consider retaliating with a cyber attack on Chinese systems, comparable to what the United States and Israel did to Iran’s nuclear facilities with the computer virus Stuxnet.

A better response would be to see China’s hacking activities as part of modern reality. Nonetheless, there should be earnest, quiet, urgent talks on the subject between President Obama and incoming Chinese President Xi Jingping. This is not an area of U.S.-Chinese relations in which ambiguity can be allowed to reign.