Where to Draw Cyber Red Lines Between US and China

Looking back at cyber threats in 2014, pictures a landscape that is continually changing with cyber actors growing in sophistication and complexity. The volume of cyberattacks have increased significantly especially those targeting US companies and federal agencies. What probably never change is the list of cyber aggressors with China, Russia, US, Iran and North Korea topping the list of the most active cyber actors on this front.

Notably, US and China have locked horn severally in this past year, as both countries trade accusation of cyber espionage against each other. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell who the victim is or the aggressor between these two cyber giants. Maybe china is too aggressive or Americans started a cyber-war that is bigger than them, by poking their noses in other people’s cyberspace.

As a result, relations between Beijing and Washington have grown from worse to worst over the past 12 months. FBI director James Comey is on record saying China has crossed the Red line, which begs the question, are there set red lines on the Cyberspace? What would be the consequences of crossing these presumed red lines?

Well, unlike in physical world where crossing the territorial lines is outright act war, it is difficult to tell when or where these red lines are crossed on the cyber space. For instance, many considered the latest hack at Sony Inc. as an outright act against America but President Obama ruled out any military action against North Korea. NSA director Adm. Michael Rodgers has in the past said cyber-attacks from china could topple US power grids, aviation systems and satellites but we are yet to witness any decisive action from Whitehouse.

Experts and academicians believe US and China would not allow any cyber aggression to escalate to the extent of a physical war. Actually, these two cyber giants separated by the pacific have a lot of shared Economic interest that would supersede any provocation to war. “These countries will each have their own defenses, [but] we know where the bottom lines lie — we know things we would never try or never do,” said Guo Guangchang, chairman of the Chinese investment giant Fosun International.

Since physical war is not an option maybe it’s time for these states to sit down and Iron out their differences, a sentiment echoed by experts in both Beijing and Washington. “We need to discuss these problems more and more. Chinese [people] are not monsters. They are not trying to launch a new world war,” says Guangchang.

“The U.S.-China relationship is an incredibly broad one — it’s deep, and it’s complex, and there are going to be issues that we’re not likely to see eye to eye on easily or very quickly ,but that doesn’t mean we can’t figure out ways to talk about them,” says a US official who sought of speak under anonymity.

More importantly, any cyber discussion between US and China would be useless without involving emerging cyber powers such as Iran and North Korea who have a significant impact on this conflict. Experts believe North Korean hackers are increasing routing cyber-attacks through china as a disguise. A recently released report by Hewlett-Packard confirmed that North Korea state cyberattack units conduct their “operations from within China” which only worsen the already frosty relationship between US and China.

The Recent hack on Sony Inc. is enough prove of North Korea’s cyber capabilities. The FBI promised to “identify, pursue, and impose costs and consequences on individuals or nation states” involve while President Obama vaguely said White House would “respond proportionately”, something that never sat well with many Americans, who expected an immediate and swift response from Obama administration. All said and done, the incidence underscores the importance of involving North Korea when drawing the cyber space red lines.

Iran is the new kid on the block causing sleepless night to Americans, with many calling her the “new China,” more aggressive than Russia. A report by Cylance security firm indicate that Iranian state backed hackers targeted over 50 top notch companies and Agencies  in US, UAE, South Korea, England, Germany and France in the last two years.

Notably, Iranian hackers are out there for blood as a consequence of US continuous sabotage of Iran’s nuclear programs.  As a result Iranian hacker now pose an eminent threat to US critical infrastructure including energy firms, power grids, Commercial airlines and weather systems,  a factor that grants Iran a seat at the discussion table.

Only time will tell whether US, Russia China, Iran and North Korea will amicably agree to end the ongoing cyber aggression against each other and more importantly, agree on where to draw the cyber red lines. Notably, cyber peace will be found if these countries respect the outcomes of negotiations and so long as US learn to keep its cyber-curiosity in its pants.

Top/Featured Image: By Iecs / Wikipedia (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FlagUSA_FlagPRC_crash.svg)

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Where to Draw Cyber Red Lines Between US and China

by Ali Qamar time to read: 3 min
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