In Jonah Goldberg’s recent National Review article titled “Why Are We Ignoring a Cyber Pearl Harbor?”, he pondered the vastly more visceral response that would have emanated from the American people had the recent OPM hack been carried out in a more conventional (read: Physical) manner. His theoretical situation involved a team of Chinese agents breaking into the Office of Personnel Management and he concluded that Americans would have called such an invasion of American territory an “act of war” as the captured Chinese spies were walked through the streets in humiliation and terror. In reality, however, there are no calls to war. It’s more likely that Americans do not even know of or understand what is the most expansive and damaging breach in U.S. cyber security ever.
Chinese hackers stole the personal data of millions of current and former U.S. government employees. This information includes social security numbers, financial history, and a plethora of facts about people collected from background checks. The government employees affected include those holding high-level security clearances and access to extremely sensitive information. It is common knowledge in the intelligence community that a potential asset’s suitability for recruitment depends on what you can learn about them and what you can use against them. at present, the Chinese government possesses a treasure trove of knowledge about millions of American government workers. Goldberg brings up a great point as he notices the lack of outrage by the average American. He attributes this to Washington’s move to downplay the magnitude of the breach, the lack of flashy and exciting visuals, and that the public still sees hacking as a sort of underwhelming magic not meant to be understood. While these are all salient points, it is apparent that the OPM breach is indicative of a larger issue that is sure to move its way up our list of priorities, lest we be burned by ignoring it. This issue can be summed up in a question:
- Can cyberspace be sovereign territory?
And that question can be followed with another:
- Is the invasion of one nation’s cyberspace analogous to the invasion of its sovereign physical territory?
To mimic Goldberg’s use of imagination, what if a team of highly-trained operatives from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army furtively entered the United States armed to the teeth? These Chinese warriors evaded all American surveillance on their way to a large, important piece of American energy infrastructure. These paid employees of the Chinese government then broke into an American facility and disabled a large part of the American power grid temporarily. Upon their attempt to exfiltrate, the operatives were apprehended by American authorities.
How would the reaction to this scenario differ from the reaction to Chinese hackers breaching a California Department of Water and Power facility and briefly shutting down the electricity for a large portion of California residents?
In a country quickly immersing itself into the the “internet of things,” connecting Americans’ everyday physical reality to the world wide web, the lines between digital and the corporeal are being blurred. As those lines blur, the possibility for breaches into a wide variety of “things” becomes a reality. To ponder an extreme, a Chinese hacker in Pudong could change the channel on your television, turn on your stove, or steal your most valuable personal information in ways similar to a man letting himself into your home and rummaging through your valuables.
How different are these two violations of privacy and does one represent a violation of space, territory, and sovereignty while the other does not?
Not very different at all.
The question I am asking now is: Did China invade the United States of America and what do invasions like these mean for the future of international relations, diplomacy, and, inevitably, warfare?
I venture to answer my own question: Yes, China did invade the United States and invasions like these, if not taken more seriously, will irreparably damage American national security and leave the American population vulnerable to Chinese terrorism.