DOD report calls out Chinese hacking, but what do we do to stop it?

So what’s new in the Defense Department’s new report about Chinese military capabilities? The biggest news seems to be that the Pentagon is actually saying that Chinese-military hackers are attacking its networks. Not that this should be news to readers of Killer Apps. The report states that numerous U.S. government computer systems around the world ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

So what's new in the Defense Department's new report about Chinese military capabilities? The biggest news seems to be that the Pentagon is actually saying that Chinese-military hackers are attacking its networks. Not that this should be news to readers of Killer Apps.

The report states that numerous U.S. government computer systems around the world are being "targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military." It goes on to say that China is using cyber espionage to collect intelligence on U.S. diplomatic, economic, and "defense industrial base sectors that support U.S. national defense programs."

The same skills being used by Chinese cyberspies to steal information could easily be used in a destructive attack against U.S. networks, the report points out.

So what’s new in the Defense Department’s new report about Chinese military capabilities? The biggest news seems to be that the Pentagon is actually saying that Chinese-military hackers are attacking its networks. Not that this should be news to readers of Killer Apps.

The report states that numerous U.S. government computer systems around the world are being "targeted for intrusions, some of which appear to be attributable directly to the Chinese government and military." It goes on to say that China is using cyber espionage to collect intelligence on U.S. diplomatic, economic, and "defense industrial base sectors that support U.S. national defense programs."

The same skills being used by Chinese cyberspies to steal information could easily be used in a destructive attack against U.S. networks, the report points out.

Again, nothing new. Heck, this isn’t even the first time the U.S. government has called out China on hacking.

The real question is: what will it take to stop widespread cyber espionage before it leads to all-out cyber warfare: Sanctions? A military deterrent? What about a nuclear-armed military deterrent?

Preventing cyber espionage and cyber attacks is "a consequences calculation and the consequences aren’t there," said one Senate staffer who works on cyber issues. For "everybody from your common hacker to your professional hacker to the nation states, the consequences aren’t there" to deter these kinds of actions.

He went on to compare the current era of cyber espionage to the "Napster days" of free music downloading.

"There was nothing that was going to deter college-age students from ripping off music until there was a consequence that was associated with it and the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] had to go out there and start suing," said the staffer.

Richard Bejtlich, chief security officer at Mandiant, thinks that while it’s important for the U.S. government to call out the Chinese government’s bad behavior, it’s going to take more than harsh language to deter state-backed cyber espionage. (Remember, Mandiant is the firm that published a report in February detailing the exploits of what is believed to be a PLA hacking unit against worldwide targets, including the U.S. government.)

"It’s important for noncommercial, government entities like DOD to make definitive statements on Chinese cyber capabilities," Bejtlich told Killer Apps. However, "because the Chinese consider espionage a tool for economic development, and the economy is one of their top national security concerns, they will not change course if the U.S. only complains with words. They are more likely to constrain their behavior if the U.S. imposes specific sanctions and exercises all elements of national power."

Bejtlich’s comments echo those of Rep. Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee who has repeatedly urged the State Department to impose sanctions on any foreigner found to aid cyber espionage against the United States government or businesses.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.