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Chinese Hacking and The Art of War

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Finally, there appears to be real alarm in the White House over Chinese cyberattacks. The president recently summoned top corporate leaders to the White House to discuss this growing threat even as he dispatched newly appointed Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to confront his counterparts in Beijing. Here's what the president should be telling the American people.

First, Chinese cyberattacks are rapidly escalating -- not just in their sheer number but also in the range of targets. During the 2010s, China's "Red Hacker" brigades focused primarily on acquiring military secrets. Today, these bandits are relentlessly probing American corporations, stealing everything from technologies and trade secrets to bid documents and financial information. Their goal is to pirate products and seize markets - and thereby steal American jobs.

Second, Beijing's denials notwithstanding, privatized cyberhacking is strongly encouraged by the Chinese government. Its "Red Hacker" militia is organized into thousands of small groups with names like "Green Army Corps," "the Crab Group," and even all-girl ensembles like "Six Golden Flowers." This vast underground network is both a training ground and a recruitment center. Indeed, the very best hackers wind up working for the government itself.

Third, we increasingly run the risk that Chinese hackers will take control of, and possibly destroy, key elements of our infrastructure -- from telecommunications and our electricity grid to our water supply and subway systems. Lest you think this is science fiction, just consider this scenario:

A Chinese engineer at a factory in Chengdu designs a remote control "backdoor" into a computer's operating system or, alternatively, a "kill switch" into a complex, custom computer chip. China then exports these secretly embedded "Manchurian" chips and backdoors to the United States where they become part of larger systems that perform their normal functions. Meanwhile, just as in the movie The Manchurian Candidate, these devices await some kind of signal that allows Beijing's cyber bandits to either shut down or take control of the equipment. In fact, planting such Manchurian chips is remarkably easy to do since China has become the world's de facto factory floor. Modern software programs have millions of lines of code to bury a bug in while microchips for our computers and phones and iPods contain hundreds of millions of logic gates in which to hide a digital surprise.

In considering all these dangers, we must dismiss out of hand the argument that "all countries engage in some kind of cyber espionage so we shouldn't single out the Chinese." It's one thing for the U.S. to spy on China or Russia or Iran to make sure that they don't drop missiles on us. It's quite another thing for China to hack into General Motors or Google or General Electric or DuPont and steal the technology which is designed to create jobs for our country even as it hacks into the Pentagon to steal weapons systems that are now pointed at our own Pacific fleet.

In light of the severe damage Chinese hacking is doing to America's economy and national security, the president and Congress should call it exactly what it is -- an act of war. Our leaders would also do well to acknowledge one of the most important lessons of Sun Tzu's The Art of War -- required reading for every Chinese bureaucrat and military officer: The best way to defeat an enemy is to do so without firing a shot. Chinese strategists clearly understand crippling the industrial base of the United States provides a clear path to victory; and Chinese hacking is now helping to serve exactly that purpose.