IT espionage is more thriller than threat

The newspapers are full of Chinese hackers attacking Western interests. Dramatic, but not threatening
Written by Leader , Contributor

Last week, an unusual sound could be heard in the skies above the offices of UK newspapers: prayers of thanks from the defence correspondents. Fed delicious titbits about Chinese hackers breaking into the Pentagon and Whitehall, they responded by cooking up a three-course dinner of techno-threat, cyber-warfare and Oriental peril.

We have been here before. Over the duration of the Cold War, the game of spy versus spy rapidly evolved from information gathering through to a vital component of the peculiarly stable political co-dependency of East and West. Both sides knew what the other was up to: both knew when to look the other way, when to quietly take action, and when to make a noise.

Synthetic cries of outrage and denial were common then: expect them to be common again. Of course the Chinese military and security services are actively assessing what they can find out and what they can do to American and European computer systems. As a form of espionage it's nearly perfect: ultra-low risk, ultra-low cost, ultra-high rewards. It would be incompetence of a higher grade than even military intelligence can manage were the West's secret services not repaying the compliment — and taking the opportunity to tighten up its own security.

With the Chinese reportedly set on "electronic dominance" by 2050 and the US declaring for "full-spectrum dominance" by 2020, everything is in place for IT to become the default battleground for the world's spooks. This could revitalise the spy thriller genre, although dusty offices in South London industrial estates filled with speccy geeks don't have the same dramatic potential as the sewers of Vienna.

It need not have any greater effect than that. While the 20th century Cold War was built on secrecy, bluff and isolation, China's resurgence is built on accessibility, promise and the buying and selling of experts. Informal standards of mutually acceptable behaviour will evolve, because you can't stay in the global capitalism club any other way. Just don't expect the facts to get in the way of a good story.

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