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The Implication of PRISM on US China Cyber Dialogue

Jun 24 , 2013
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Fellow, CICIR

The exposure of the highly classified program named PRISM shortly before the Sunnylands Summit wasn’t the best of timing. The New York Times said the leaks overshadowed the summit, and most of the US media were more focused on the PRISM than a new model of cooperation between China and US. However, the PRISM may also provide some meaningful implications about the China-US cyber dialogue, which will be stressed at the upcoming Strategic and Economic Dialogue. 

On the bright side, the PRISM leaks will improve the potential for US-China cooperation on cyber policies. Before the leaks, the United States had nothing to say about its policies in cyber intelligence and seemed to support less governance and supervision in cyber space. Former Secretary of State Clinton mentioned China twice in her speeches advocating for Internet freedom. In the US International Strategy for Cyberspace released in 2011, the Obama administration emphasized the role of Internet in US democracy promotion. These initiatives worried China to a certain degree. The suspicions were heightened in 2011 during the so-called the jasmine revolutions, especially as discussions on US-China cooperation in cyberspace were just beginning. 

The PRISM files had confirmed some suspicions of China, but also revealed that the differences between China and US in the concept of Internet governance were much less than expected. The US government shared the same concerns about the use of Internet to launch harmful behaviors in the real world, and they felt inclined to comply with the concept of sovereignty in cyber space like China. If the US side could acknowledge it, then the two countries may have a fundamental consensus in cyber space cooperation. After that, it may be helpful to US and China to have a deeper talk on the international rules and principles in the cyber space. 

Additionally, by losing its moral high ground, the US could turn down their attacks on China cyber espionage issues, and turn its focus on some more practical issues like cyber crime, cyber hacking, and regulation of Internet pornography. Those issues are more likely fruitful in US-China cyber talks, and help two countries to get a good start and built a positive atmosphere for the next rounds. Most importantly, the leaks of US president orders of cyber-attack target list overseas also stress the urgent to dialogue in cyber warfare control and the principle of cyber war. Those aggressive cyber attack plans surprised Beijing as well as other countries.

PRISM has raised the concerns of China and other countries about the security of their cyber assets. It is reported that Internet providers such as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple were linked with the PRISM. The Washington Post said that the NSA and FBI were directly tapped into central servers at nine US Internet firms, in order to provide constant monitoring of audio, video, photos, emails and documents as well as connection logs. Those companies possess a large share of the market in China as well as other developing countries, and it is possible for US intelligence agencies to get to know everyone’s passwords and private messages without notice and permission. After the leaks, it would not be surprising if China and others set stricter security reviews on American IT companies, similar to how the US Congress has reviewed the dealings of Huawei and Zhongxing. The Financial Times even suggested that leaders of other countries should carefully use iPhones as their private communication tools, as US intelligence can read their short massages. Furthermore, countries across the globe may try to get rid of the heavy reliance on US information technologies, cloud services and US owned root servers. They may develop different standards, which will increase the cost of Internet use and make the Internet information flows less smooth as before. 

Those concerns will throw a new stone to the worldwide cooperation in Internet, and possibly reverse the trend of globalization. This could also deepen China’s doubts on the sincerity of US side about cyber issues. The United States needs to make more clarifications about the controversial law named FISA, and provide public guarantees to stop such supervisions to win the trust of China as well as others. If the US hopes to be a moral leader and maker of regulations in cyber space, it should first abide by the same standard domestic and international. 

Li Zheng is an Assistant Researcher at the Institute of American Studies of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

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