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Post-PRISM Reminder: The Cyber War Is Real


If there’s one thing you need to read today, it’s the transcript of General Michael Hayden’s interview with the Australian Financial Review. To say that excerpting it does it no justice is a massive understatement. Any VM readers interested in geopolitics, Asia, China’s rise, and cyber-espionage owe it to themselves to make their way through the admittedly lengthy conversation.

Here’s General Hayden on China’s telecom giant Huawei:

AFR: Does Huawei represent an unambiguous national security threat to the US and Australia?

Gen. Hayden: Yes, I believe it does.

AFR: Do you think hard evidence exists within democratic, English-speaking intelligence networks intelligence network that Huawei has engaged in espionage on behalf of the Chinese state in the past?

Gen. Hayden: Yes, I have no reason to question the belief that’s the case. That’s my professional judgement. But as the former director of the NSA, I cannot comment on specific instances of espionage or any operational matters.

Hayden goes on to detail in some depth exactly how and why Huawei cannot be trusted, and how sovereign states need to delicately balance free markets and national interests. It’s a very smart and nuanced take, and one we’ve noted becoming increasingly apparent to the Silicon Valley set.

Next, General Hayden contends that the Snowden leaks have caused far more damage to U.S. security interests than most people realize—perhaps more even than the Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanson betrayals, which led to people being executed.

Snowden is attempting to reveal the underlying architecture of the US intelligence gathering network. We’ve lost cups of water before. We’ve lost buckets of water. Yet this is a guy who is exposing the very plumbing that pipes the information. He’s exposing the methods through which we access information.

Nevertheless, Hayden argues that leaks like this are both inevitable and more likely to happen again in the future:

…we Americans and Australians need to recruit from Edward Snowden’s generation. The problem is that this is a generation of people whose views on secrecy, privacy, transparency, and government accountability are a bit different from the folks supervising them, and certainly different from my generation.

We nonetheless need to recruit from this group because they have the skills that ASIO, ASIS, DSD, NSA and CIA require to fulfil their lawful mandates. So the challenge is how to recruit this talent while also protecting ourselves from the very small fraction of that population that has this romantic attachment to absolute transparency at all costs.

Finally, the article returns to the reality of global cyber-espionage, the China-US relationship, and US strategy in Asia. A final taste:

AFR: You say there is a key difference between the espionage practices of the US and its allies and China’s spying. What is it?

Gen. Hayden: Listen, I fully admit: we steal other country’s secrets. And frankly we’re quite good at it. But the reason we steal these secrets is to keep our citizens free, and to keep them safe. We don’t steal secrets to make our citizens rich. Yet this is exactly what the Chinese do.

I believe the Chinese today are engaging in unrestricted espionage against the West that is comparable to the unrestricted submarine warfare waged by Imperial Germany in 1916. The intensity of Chinese espionage is certainly greater than that what we saw between the US and the Soviets during the Cold War.

The problem is China’s view is that industrial espionage by the state against relatively vulnerable private enterprise is a commonly accepted state practice. This is just unacceptable.

Industrial espionage by the Chinese has probably now become the core issue in the Sino-American relationship. It is not an irritant. It is not a peripheral issue. Believe me, I work closely with America’s congress and government, and this is now the dominant issue between the two countries, and runs the risk of undermining the entire relationship.

Do read the whole thing. These few excerpts don’t even scratch the surface.

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  • Nick Bidler

    This does not excuse the NSA thing, but it does mean maybe DARPA should put more cashmoneydollars into counterespionage, and less into easily-abused surveillance technologies.

  • Anthony

    Excellent and informative read. I take away: “As an intelligence professional, I stand back in awe at the breath, depth, sophistication and persistence of the Chinese espionage campaign against the west…. Recruit from Edward Snowden’s generation…they have the skills that ASIO, ASIS, DSD, NSA and CIA require….” And much much more: Gen Hayden informs.

  • ljgude

    This is the first thing I have read that makes a credible (to me at least) distinction between what the US is doing and what China is doing. I also think he is right about Snowdon being a romantic. I think of him as naive. I don’t think he is a spy like Ames, but a foolish idealist, as he is discovering. The only countries that will have him are Gilbert and Sullivan Marxist shams.

  • Jim__L

    “We are moving … to a world in which cyber is being used to deliberately create direct kinetic consequences”

    Like crashing self-driving cars. Or self-driving trucks carrying hazardous materials. This might even be a dealbreaker for Google’s plans, even if VM is a big fan.

    “Insofar as Snowden’s leaks have impaired the ability of intelligence agencies to collect information, political leaders in Western democratic states will have commensurately less forewarning and knowledge of crises beginning to build.”

    This is especially damaging in an administration like the one we have, which insists on analyzing situations (like Syria) to extremis before acting.

    “The problem is that this is a generation of people whose views on secrecy, privacy, transparency, and government accountability are a bit different from the folks supervising them, and certainly different from my generation. ”

    So, pick the members of Snowden’s “generation” that are self-consciously not identified with those ideals. Just as you’ll find financially responsible (and non-drug using) Boomers, you’ll find young people today capable of discretion.

    Question for Hayden — is stymieing Chinese cyber-espionage sufficiently in the US’s interests, that it would be worth spending taxpayer money to establish a conduit to supply private Internet security companies with cyber-attack prevention software that has been created at taxpayer expense?

    (I’m pretty sure we already do this, and I’m pretty sure he can’t talk about specifics about what we do, but I’d like to emphasize that there is likely a lot of public support for spending taxpayer money this way, just in case that’s a question.)

    “We simply need to balance the growth of Chinese power in the region and take the necessary precautions to make it much more difficult, or highly unlikely, for China to make a dumb decision in 3, 5, 10 or 15 years.”

    Amen. This is why we need to maintain the Pax Americana with a strong military.

    “the Party will not be able to default to legitimacy of “Confucian merit””

    If they keep spying on us for their own financial gain, we can hammer on them for violating the principle not to “harm the world, rather than allow the world to harm them”. Reading Chinese classics should be a whole lot more common in American schools — Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, etc. Figure out what their ideals are, and prod them to stick to them.

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