Snowden leak has given China ammunition in US cyber-spat

Analysis: Beijing has accused Washington of double standards and hypocrisy

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo holds a letter to US president Barack Obama, beside a combination photo featuring Obama and Edward Snowden, at a news conference in Hong Kong yesterday in support of Snowden. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo holds a letter to US president Barack Obama, beside a combination photo featuring Obama and Edward Snowden, at a news conference in Hong Kong yesterday in support of Snowden. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters

Sat, Jun 15, 2013, 01:10

The revelations by Edward Snowden about widescale US government surveillance are raising uncomfortable issues in Washington. But the former intelligence contractor – whistleblower to some, traitor to others – has also given Beijing serious ammunition in its cyber-skirmish with the US.

Snowden revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) is monitoring vast quantities of phone activity and data on Google and Facebook as part of its counterterrorism efforts, and has 61,000 hacking targets around the world, including hundreds in Hong Kong and mainland China.

The report sparked renewed debate about the use of surveillance to combat terrorism. Civil liberties activists see the intrusions as dangerous.

China, the operator of the world’s greatest system of internet controls, the so-called Great Firewall, has few qualms about the impact on civil rights. But it has been quick, via state media, to argue that the revelations highlight US double standards.

“For the past few years, the US has been blaming other countries for threatening cyber-security. However, the recent leakage of the two top-secret US surveillance programmes of the NSA has smashed the image of the US as a cyber-liberty advocate and revealed its hypocrisy,” said the editorial.

It said the US, as the birthplace of the worldwide web, had a significant cyberforce, including the 780th Military Intelligence Brigade, a regular military unit tasked with cyber-missions. “It’s time for the US government to make more self-examination instead of pointing fingers at other nations,” it said.

Snowden has not been charged and the US has not filed for his extradition, although the US department of justice has launched a criminal investigation.


Extradition agreement
Hong Kong has an extradition agreement with the US, although relations will not have been helped by Snowden’s revelations about US government activity in the territory. He told the South China Morning Post that the NSA had been hacking computers in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009.

Among those institutions hacked was the Chinese University, which houses the Hong Kong Internet Exchange, a facility that handles almost all the territory’s domestic web traffic.

The official response in Beijing was initially guarded.

“We have seen the relevant reports, but I regret that I have no information to give you on this,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a news briefing in what were the first official remarks by Beijing on the case.


Double standards
However, Hua continued in a more pointed way: “On the issue of internet security we believe that having double standards does not help find an appropriate resolution.”

Chinese airforce colonel Dai Xu, known for his strident opinions, wrote on his microblog: “I have always said the US’s accusations about Chinese hacking attacks have always been a case of a thief crying for another thief to be caught.”

Cyber-security was one of the main topics on the agenda at the first summit between Chinese president Xi Jinping and US president Barack Obama last week.

An editorial in the Global Times, an offshoot of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper, said the affair posed a challenge for Beijing. “Whether the Chinese government agrees to extradite Snowden back to the US will directly impact their bilateral relationship, which has seen a good start after the Xi-Obama meeting,” it said.

“The Chinese government should acquire more solid information from Snowden if he has it, and use it as evidence to negotiate with the US.”

It added: “Snowden is a ‘card’ that China never expected. But China is neither adept at nor used to playing it . . . China is a rising power, and it deserves corresponding respect from the US.”