Since 2013, the Obama administration has publicly pressed China on one particular cybersecurity problem: the alleged theft of U.S. trade secrets by units of the Chinese government for the benefit of Chinese firms. The pressure, which administration officials said will continue at this week’s Obama-Xi summit in Beijing, has produced no significant results and has stalled dialogue on a much more dangerous aspect of cybersecurity: the quiet arms race to develop the ability to disrupt critical computer systems, potentially leading to chaos and civilian deaths.
Computer-enabled theft of intellectual property certainly violates laws and norms of fair competition, and the U.S. government and private computer security firms have released convincing evidence that units of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are behind some of the stolen secrets. This industrial-scale theft also undermines support for stable U.S.–China relations in the U.S. business community, historically an important counter to China hawks from military and human rights circles. But there is no sign the U.S. approach has stopped or significantly slowed cyber theft, and even if China’s apparent state-sponsored theft were to stop completely, there would still be freelance thieves from China and around the world. The message for U.S. companies with trade secrets is clear: Cybersecurity is a defensive game; guard your treasures.
The Obama administration’s emphasis on commercial theft has risen over the last two years. In his February 2013 State of the Union speech, Obama made a thinly veiled reference to China, saying, “We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets.” The day before, someone had leaked part of an intelligence report naming “China as the country most aggressively seeking to penetrate the computer systems of American businesses and institutions to gain access to data that could be used for economic gain.” In a major Asia policy speech in March 2013, then-National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon said that protecting “intellectual property and trade secrets” had “moved to the forefront of our agenda.”
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