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China and cyber espionage

Online spying is part of the weaponization of the Internet and here China receives the most opprobrium in the US-led Western media. Espionage has technical, political, psychological and legal dimensions in a rapidly changing strategic landscape (Lin and Zegart, 2019). Even before the Snowden revelations and the advent of what Zuboff has called ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff, 2019), the NSA led an extensive international surveillance operation called Echelon. Through a combination of spy satellites and digital surveillance devices, Echelon intercepted and eavesdropped on international electronic communication - phones, e-mail, radio signals, airline and maritime frequencies.

Satellite intelligence from commercial companies such as Space Imaging, co-owned by Google Earth, hugely benefit from the highly lucrative global satellite imaging market. In 2010, Google won an exclusive $27 million contract to provide

US intelligence with ‘geospatial visualization services’ (Levine, 2017). As cyberspace has emerged as the new frontier for geopolitics, governments have become entrepreneurial in their sponsorship, deployment and exploitation of hackers -‘cyber proxies’ and ‘mercenaries’ - to project or protect their national interests (Maurer, 2018).

China’s growing assertion in reshaping the cyber domain and its preparations for what it calls ‘war under conditions of informatization’ (Cheng, 2016: 2) is another example of moves to de-Americanize the Internet. Reports of Chinese spies hacking into US government computer systems to procure intellectual property from industrial manufacturers and military contractors, allegedly sponsored by the Chinese government, have been circulating in US media and academic literature (Singer and Friedman, 2014;Wolff, 2018).‘Perhaps the most damaging channel for stealing US intellectual property is cyberespionage’, said a report, Chinese Influence Activities in the United States, published by the Hoover Institution. ‘Cyberespionage is both a means for pilfering US science and technology, as well as a method of intelligence collection for potential attacks against the American military, government, and commercial technical systems’ (Hoover Institution, 2018: 125).

A 2018 cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek alleged that Chinese agents had inserted surveillance microchips into servers used by leading corporations, including Apple and Amazon (Robertson and Riley, 2018). In the same year, the US Justice Department charged two Chinese nationals with ‘Global Computer Intrusion Campaigns’, targeting intellectual property and confidential business information. Of particular interest to Western observers are the activities of Huawei, against whom charges of surveillance and spying are routinely made: in 2010, the NSA secretly broke into Huawei’s headquarters in an operation code-named ‘Shotgiant’ to spy on its 5G technology. ‘Americans were trying to do to Huawei the exact thing they are now worried Huawei will do to the United States’, reported the New York Tinies, wryly (Sanger et al., 2019).

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