Washington's digital-surveillance systems are more powerful than many thought.
When it came to light that hackers had breached the networks of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other major U.S. institutions, one of Washington's first responses was to blame China. China's response? You guys do it, too!
"The Defense Ministry and China Military Online websites have faced a serious threat from hacking attacks since they were established," Geng Yansheng, a spokesperson for China's defense ministry, said in February. Of 144,000 website hacks the ministry sees each month, Geng added, 63 percent come from U.S.-based IP addresses.
Then, last week, China claimed to have a "mountain of data" proving that the United States is engaged in cyberespionage operations against Beijing.
It's important to point out that the kind of hacking Geng is talking about is fundamentally different from the kind of hacking Congress is worried about. If Geng is referring to the denial-of-service attacksthat we see often, this is something of an empty complaint. Bringing down a website by flooding it with traffic doesn't compromise an organization's security. It's annoying and disruptive, but it isn't espionage. The kind of hacking China has been accused of is far more sophisticated, involving deep network penetration in such a way that closely held government or corporate secrets can be stolen. In short, Beijing and Washington are blaming each other for two very different activities.
But just because we haven't had much reason to take China at its word doesn't mean there isn't a grain of truth to it.
"My feeling would be, there is no doubt, even before the weekend's revelations, that NSA conducted espionage against China," Adam Segal, a cybersecurity and China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an e-mail to National Journal.
We still don't know whether China really has the evidence of U.S. hacking that it claims to have. But the latest round of NSA leaks appears to confirm that the United States has the right set of capabilities—not just the motive—to spy on China. And that lends some credence to Beijing's protests.