Espionage? Moi?

Sure, Paris is a hypocrite when it comes to spying. But it isn't alone.

Thanassis Stavrakis - Pool/Getty Images
Thanassis Stavrakis - Pool/Getty Images

If you buy the latest reporting out of Europe, France is outraged, simply outraged, at news that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on the European Union through its mission in New York and embassy in Washington. French political parties are now rumbling about offering asylum to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor at the center of the leaks. The French government is demanding answers from the United States about its snooping. Monsieur Le Président himself, François Hollande, is calling for an end to the spying.

All of which is pretty hilarious, given France’s penchant for stealing American defense technology, bugging American business executives and generally annoying U.S. counterintelligence officials. If you’ve been paying attention, you know that France is a proficient, notorious and unrepentant economic spy. "In economics, we are competitors, not allies," Pierre Marion, the former director of France’s equivalent of the CIA, once said. "America has the most technical information of relevance. It is easily accessible. So naturally your country will receive the most attention from the intelligence services."

It’s thus tempting to toss aside France’s protests as rank and witting hypocrisy over economic espionage, which of course they are. But the leaks about the NSA’s collection of economic information and the difficulty in explaining the differences in how it’s used on opposite sides of the Atlantic spell trouble for American cyberdiplomacy around the world.

Lest you doubt that France has dirty hands in corporate spying, there’s a long, storied and public bill of particulars against La République Française’s intelligence agencies.

France’s espionage against American companies, described as "aggressive and massive," dates back to the 1960s and is largely born out of a desire to prop up its defense industry, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office, which delicately referred to France as "Country B." France lacks a domestic defense market large enough to support cutting edge development so it opts to steal American military technology in order to save R&D costs and enjoy advanced weaponry for its own military and competitive for exports abroad.

France’s economic espionage hasn’t been confined solely to America’s defense industrial base, though. In the late 1980s, French intelligence reportedly spied on premiere firms such as Texas Instruments and IBM in a bid to help out its domestic computer industry. Reports of hidden microphones in the seats of Air France picking up the indiscreet business chatter of American executives have since become common intelligence lore.

The snooping burst into the public sphere during the 1993 Paris Air Show, the world’s biggest aerospace confab. It’s usually prom for the aviation industry, a chance for countries to show off their latest and greatest fighter jets and commercial airliner. But the show hit a sour note when a CIA document listing dozens of American companies targeted for espionage by France leaked to the public, prompting firms like Pratt & Whitney and Hughes Aircraft to hold back products or withdraw from the show entirely.

The spying continues even today, according a recent U.S. National Intelligence Estimate. The NIE declared France, alongside Russia and Israel, to be in a distant but respectable second place behind China in using cyberespionage for economic gain.

This was the kind of spying that, with rare exceptions, the United States swore it never did. Sure, America snoops on foreign governments for the odd advantage in trade talks. Long before Edward Snowden shared details of the European Union’s leaky fax machine, the New York Times was reporting how the United States used the CIA and NSA to help it in trade negotiations with Japan. But the U.S. intelligence community would (almost) never spy on a foreign company just to benefit an American one.

In other words, stealing secrets to help a government is fine. Stealing secrets to help a business is not. "There’s a big difference between that and a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple’s software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product," President Obama recently said after his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Now that the particulars of U.S. eavesdropping are on display that distinction between spying on Apple and the Defense Department is going to be even harder to make. As Bloomberg reported today, part of the U.S. strategy to curtail Chinese cyberespionage against American companies rests on pressuring China by naming and shaming its corporate snooping activities and trying to engage it to establish rules of the road.

It’s hard to embarrass China over a norm of dubious existence whose violation a number of countries don’t find all too embarrassing. The recent NIE on cyberespionage makes clear that of the U.N. Security Council, Russia, China, and France view it as an acceptable practice.

Whether France, China, or other countries buy America’s pinky swears about the economic secrets it hoovers up or are simply demagoguing the issue is immaterial. It’s easy to muddy the picture with much of the global public. We need only look back to 2001, when France belted out howls of protest at Echelon, the worrisome NSA program of its day, in the wake of a European Parliament report branding the United States as a global economic snoop.

Nor is it just in France and China that America’s protests fall on deaf ears. Take a stroll through the National Counterintelligence Executive’s (NCIX) annual reports on foreign economic espionage and you’ll find a ballpark of about a half dozen to a dozen chronic offenders over the years. Beyond the core group of problem countries, NCIX has found entities from as many as 108 countries "involved in collection efforts against sensitive and protected U.S. technologies" in some years. Moreover, a number of American allies also just aren’t as eager to follow America’s lead in making trade secret theft a criminal, rather than just civil matter.

If the United States wants to get something more from China on economic espionage than the hypocrisy and Gallic shrug it gets from France, it’s going to have to try something different. Lectures about unevenly shared beliefs and intelligence revelations that name more than they shame likely won’t be enough. For China and others, the distance between our economic intelligence collection and theirs is a distinction without a difference.

Adam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.