The Internet’s Iron Curtain Moment

A recently released report condemning Chinese and Russian cyber espionage contains echoes of the Cold War past.

By: Shane Harris

You might have missed it, but there was a pivotal moment last week in the history of the Internet. On Thursday, in a speech at the National Press Club, the United States’ top spy hunter released a frank and alarming report about Chinese and Russian industrial espionage against US companies.

The report marks the first time the United States government has unequivocally stated, in emphatic* and highly publicized fashion, that China and Russia are responsible for a pervasive electronic campaign to steal American intellectual property, trade secrets, negotiating strategies, and sensitive military technology. This is not the first time sitting US officials have singled out Chinese and Russian cyber theft. But those complaints were largely off the record and carefully calibrated not to be read as a shot across the bow of America’s strategic adversaries. This report, however, is that shot.

In clear, mostly nontechnical language, the report characterizes cyber espionage as part of China and Russia’s broad national strategy of military, technological, and economic domination of the West, and the United States in particular. It may seem a lofty, unachievable ambition. But the report argues that the costs to American competitiveness and innovation have been great, if difficult to pinpoint with a dollar figure.

Said costs are high enough—and the threat sufficiently pervasive—for the intelligence community to issue its clearest condemnation to date, pointing the finger at the two countries that have long been believed to house the biggest dens of thieves.

The report puts in the official record what many in Washington policy circles and among its legions of defense contractors have known for several years. China conducts a relentless campaign of cyber spying largely aimed at building its military into a modern superpower and lifting its emerging economy into first-world status. Russia, while a distant second in terms of the number of operations launched against the United States, shows remarkable technical skill. The country is especially keen to obtain intelligence on scarce energy resources and economic policy strategy of the US government—as is China, for obvious reasons.

The growing community of journalists, wonks, and corporate executives who closely follow cyber security had been waiting for this moment, when the Obama administration—or really, any administration—would name and try to shame its opponents. But it was never clear when the moment might come or what event might precipitate it. There may be no single reason. Since taking office, President Obama and top members of his administration have been increasingly forceful about how they view the Internet as both a strategic asset and a liability. In that sense, it was inevitable that the administration finally put names in the broad, vague indictments it has been issuing.

That doesn’t detract from the significance of the event. And one is tempted to draw parallels to pivotal moments of the last cold war, which were underappreciated at the time, or even ridiculed. The release of this report may turn out to be the Internet’s Iron Curtain moment. Though it landed with much less ceremony and eloquence than Sir Winston Churchill’s fateful 1946 address, it nevertheless does the same job: It makes clear the stakes as the United States intelligence community sees them, and it throws down a challenge against Russia and China, which are judged to be the two greatest strategic threats to American prosperity and influence.

The stage is set for the defense of cyberspace to be a dominant theme of national security strategy in the 21st century. Cyber security will shape policies with influence beyond the confines of the Internet; fuel an already booming cyber-industrial complex that is largely situated in the greater Washington area; and position this region as the Western epicenter of a global, strategic competition on a battlefield—the Internet—that no nation as yet controls, nor probably ever will.

Lest you think the Obama administration doesn’t see this struggle through a cold war lens, have a look at the series of posters that the counterintelligence office created to educate people about the damage they could do to their businesses—and by extension, their country—if they’re not more careful online. Washington is well acquainted with this kind of rhetoric. Here it comes again.

*This piece originally used the word empathetic and has been changed to correct the author's original meaning.