The U.S. Department of Justice's decision to bring computer hacking and economic espionage charges against five alleged members of the Chinese army is an attempt by President Barack Obama's administration to redirect a global discussion about cyberhacking and surveillance, some cybersecurity experts said.
The charges, announced Monday, represent the first time the DOJ has filed computer fraud charges against state-sponsored hackers, and the indictments come after a yearlong debate about cybersurveillance at the U.S. National Security Agency, based on leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
The chances of the five alleged members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army ending up in a U.S. court are "nil," but the charges point to an effort by the Obama administration to take back a narrative it was pushing with China before the Snowden leaks about the dangers of state-sponsored hacking, said David Fidler, a professor focused on cybersecurity issues at the Indiana University law school.
The underlying message of the DOJ charges to U.S. allies is that they should be more worried about Chinese hackers than the NSA, Fidler said. At the press conference announcing the indictments, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder repeated the Obama administration assertion that the U.S. government doesn't engage in economic espionage, even though a representative of the Chinese government accused the U.S. of cyberattacks and surveillance on Chinese targets.
"The Chinese aren't just targeting U.S. companies," Fidler said. "The subtext of this is our allies ... know that the more serious threat to their national security and their companies comes from Beijing, not from the NSA."
The prosecution has some risks, including other countries bringing cyber-espionage charges against NSA employees and hackers in China retaliating with new attacks, he said. Even with those risks, the Obama administration seems to be trying to "get back to some core security interests that we have," he said.
The DOJ is signaling that "because of Snowden, we're not just going to sit here and let foreign hackers or foreign governments steal our trade secrets," Fidler added.
The DOJ prosecution could lead to indictments of U.S. government and contractor hackers, agreed Alan Pallar, research director of the SANS Institute, the security training organization. A second problem is "a possibility of the U.S. being seen as hypocritical wherever the line between military and economic espionage is not crystal clear," he added by email.
But Pallar also called the charges an "innovative approach" to putting pressure on computer hackers. "Standard diplomatic efforts have proven impotent in slowing economic crime," he said.
Nick Akerman, a lawyer focused on cybercrime at law firm Dorsey and Whitney, praised the DOJ's move, calling it a "significant prosecution" that points to longtime problems with international cyber-espionage.
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