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.
It will be interesting to see if more information about the evidence pointing to the defendants comes out in the legal process, Akerman said. "The government has made a very strong statement: 'We know what you're doing, we know who's doing it, and we know how you're doing it,'" he said. "That, in itself, is pretty important."
The charges could help the U.S. press China during diplomatic discussions, he added.
While the chances of the defendants appearing in a U.S. court are small, the DOJ may have ways of making that happen, including extradition agreements with other countries, if the defendants ever leave China, he said. "The world's a lot smaller than it used to be," he said.
Akerman dismissed the Chinese complaints that the U.S. spies on its residents. "The NSA thing is a completely different story," he said. "You're talking about trying to track people who are terrorists as opposed to going in and taking information out of companies that can be used to undercut the competition on the world market. I don't see how you can even compare the two."
U.S. Representative Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat long focused on cybersecurity issues, also praised the DOJ's indictments.
"This is far different than the spy-versus-spy espionage that dates back to ancient history," he said through a spokeswoman. "This is the systematic, methodical, and wholesale theft of corporate property for economic advantage by a country. It is absolutely unacceptable behavior, and this form of economic warfare needs to be combatted aggressively."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is email@example.com.