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Spy vs. Spy in the Cyber Age: China and the U.S. Enter a New Arena of Superpower Rivalry

Accusations of state-sanctioned cyber attacks are flying back and forth as a covert program of Internet data mining in the U.S. is revealed.

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The electronic rivalry between Washington and Beijing is becoming yet more intense, as the whistleblower who exposed the PRISM program takes refuge in Hong Kong. 

Edward Snowden, a former CIA-employee, chose Hong Kong as his port of call before leaking the classified documents. When coming public about his own identity, he cited the city's "reputation for freedom", while in the same breath saying this distinction comes "in spite of the People's Republic of China". [7] Snowden has cited Iceland as a possible long-term destination for asylum. 

However, a former CIA employee, no matter how ideologically committed to the cause of freedom, is unlikely to be naive. The recent history of "extraordinary rendition" of terror suspects from America's democratic Western allies probably factored into Snowden's decision to decision to go East. 

Choosing Hong Kong may serve a dual purpose - Snowden hopes to take advantage of both the autonomous city's open judicial process and the implied protection of China's clandestine security forces. 

In the light of intelligence officials joking about "disappearing" Snowden and a reporter covering the PRISM story [8], Snowden might reasonably chose to trust Beijing over Reykjavik for his personal protection. While it may seem ironic for an American champion of open information to take refugee in China, politics makes for strange bedfellows. 

Former CIA official Robert Baer has even gone so far as to say the entire leak of PRISM was orchestrated by Beijing: "On the face of it, it looks like it's under some sort of Chinese control. ... You have to ask what's going on? I mean, China is not a friendly country, and every aspect of that country is controlled." [9] Baer cited both Snowden's port of call and the timing of the leak - coming at the same days as the Obama-Xi summit - as being particularly suspicious. 

If indeed Snowden has defected to Beijing, this would represent a huge coup for China in the emerging realm of cyber rivalry. Already the PRISM program has helped to justify China's Internet censorship and expose a large degree of official hypocrisy on the part of the American government. 

The most dangerous aspect of cyber espionage remains its unpredictable nature. There are no clear rules of engagement differentiating between routine intelligence gathering and outright aggression. Both Beijing and Washington have a clear interest in defining red lines to prevent uncontrollable escalation. 

However, this very necessary discussion is probably best conducted in secret. Washington's vocal denunciations of Beijing's aggressive cyber activities have served little purpose other than angering Beijing, exposing American hypocrisy abroad, and justifying increased domestic control and surveillance over the Internet by the American government. 

The cyber war is already here. America's PRISM and China's Great Firewall may be signs of what is to come in a developing electronic arms race. 

Notes:
1. Obama to press China's Xi to act against cyber spying, Reuters, June 4, 2013.
2. China is a victim of hacking attacks, People's Daily, June 5, 2013.
3. Parts of NSA's PRISM program declassified, USA Today, June 8, 2013. 
4. Edward Snowden, NSA files source: 'If they want to get to you, in time they will', The Guardian, June 9, 2013.
5. Parts of NSA's PRISM program declassified, USA Today, June 8, 2013. 
6. Clinton: Internet 'information curtain' is dropping, CNN, January 21, 2010. 
7. Edward Snowden, NSA files source: 'If they want to get to you, in time they will', The Guardian, June 9, 2013.
8. Report: Intel officials allegedly 'joke' about making NSA leaker 'disappear', Examiner, June 10, 2013.
9. Ex-CIA Official Baer: China Could be Behind NSA Leaks, Newsmax, June 9, 2013.

 
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