As the United States increases pressure on Russia to extradite fugitive intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, experts in China and Hong Kong - Snowden’s first choice of refuge - are beginning to gauge what impact his revelations will have on the ongoing efforts for global cyber security.
Before boarding a plane to Moscow, the former National Security Agency contractor told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that the intelligence agency was monitoring telecommunications within China, and had targeted Tsinghua University, one of Beijing’s most prestigious schools, famous for training many of China’s current top leaders.
The school runs one of China’s six Internet backbones, the China Education and Research Network, through which the data of millions of people pass.
Benjamin Koo, a professor at Tsinghua’s department of mechanical engineering, says Snowden’s allegations, if true, suggest that the United States may have access to a huge amount of personal and academic data.
“This would be a severe violation of privacy to say the least,” he said. “Not to say [a violation of] intellectual property and also the ideas that we might want to keep to ourselves.”
Snowden’s allegations come ahead of next month’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, S&ED, where cyber security will be a prominent issue.
Since 2011 the Obama administration has named China as the source of a significant amount of cyber attacks against American government agencies and businesses.
This year the Department of Defense has for the first time officially attributed these attacks directly to the Chinese government, or agencies within China’s military apparatus.
In response, the Chinese government has repeated statements saying that China is itself a victim of attacks, with officials at China’s internet security agency, CNCERT, linking many of those attacks to the United States.
Many analysts within China agree that government-backed cyber surveillance is a standard occurrence in a country that is defending its interests in the digital age.
“If the NSA is funding a big program to do this, I would imagine - based on proportion - there will be a lot of politicians on our side that would be saying we should be putting a lot of money into it too,” says Koo, “Whoever is holding the lower end in this game is not going to feel comfortable.”
Media reports have linked some research centers in China, including Beijing’s Tsinghua University, to Chinese military-backed training centers for cyber-warfare against Western targets.
Nicholas Thomas, Associate Professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies of City University of Hong Kong, says that China has been very active in pursuing asymmetric warfare capacity.
“This is a lesson going back 20 years,” he says. “China has realized that U.S. information warfare capacity far exceeded its own and could prove to be the decisive factor in any conflict.”
But apart from cyber attacks for military and intelligence purposes, the United States has blamed China for stealing intellectual property from U.S. businesses as well.
A report released in the United States earlier this year calculated a loss of hundreds of billions of dollars each year due to Chinese hacking into commercial entities in the United States.
Analysts say that the report, which was published before the informal meeting in California between President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping, increased the level of public pressure on Mr. Obama to raise the issue during those talks.
Wu Riqiang, professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, says that it is unlikely that recent revelations about NSA spying on China will have a substantial impact on next month’s discussions on cyber security during the S&ED.
At the same time, Wu believes that Snowden has put the United States in an awkward position.
“The Snowden affair might dilute the attention that people in the United States put on hacking for economic motives,” he says.
Tsinghua University professor Benjamin Koo says that the allegations of the United States spying on academic centers in China is going to open up new territory in the two countries’ discussion on cyber security.
“It makes the two countries stand on the same footing,” he says.