Chinese hackers, and Labor

This week’s Four Corners reported that somebody, possibly the Chinese government, stole the plans for ASIO’s new headquarters. For what it’s worth, I don’t doubt for a moment that Chinese intelligence would like a copy of the building plans for ASIO’s new Taj Mahal; they’d be crazy not to want them. And stealing them is espionage, an often juvenile game that nation-states have been playing against each other essentially forever. Heck, it’d only be returning the favour for what we did to the Chinese embassy in Canberra in the 1980s.

But Michelle Grattan seems to think that like everything else that has happened since, oh, I dunno, 2007, is “bad for Labor”, so is cyberespionage:

National security issues don’t play well for Labor, so to have two controversies erupting simultaneously is a fresh blow for a government already on the ropes.

Four Corners’ allegation that Chinese hackers have obtained the blueprint of Canberra’s huge new ASIO building was separate from complaints on Monday from Anthony Byrne, Labor chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversights the intelligence organisations, that agencies are struggling under belt tightening.

The piece, taken as a whole, is yet another exhibit for the sad decline of a (reportedly) once-great journalist, but that first sentence is interesting enough to get a closer examination.

Historically, of course, the Cold War and the closely related Split kept Labor out of office for decades. And when “national security” in the public mind is defined as inflicting additional suffering on the victims of developing-world turmoil for the purposes of scaring off any more, Labor has been hopelessly conflicted. But on the questions of nation-state conflict and defence policy, the intra-party squabbles in Labor over defence policy are largely muted. The pacifist left, such that it still exists, lives on outside Labor. And, as far as I can tell, the possibility of an actual threat from a nation-state simply hasn’t entered the public mind since glasnost. The Russians aren’t enemies any more, and nothing has replaced them in the same way. It’s arguably the absence of actual threats that has focused so much attention on things that pose trivial (see terrorism) or entirely illusory (asylum seekers) ones. Nor can Labor be plausibly accused of having any enthusiasm for China’s political ideology, mostly because it no longer has one, and in any case the supposed “far left” of Australian electoral politics, The Greens, is far blunter about China’s political leadership than either major party is prepared to be in public.

Australia’s national security establishment, of course, is busily debating China’s military buildup, and have quietly convinced Australia’s government to spend gargantuan amounts on Collins Class, The Next Generation (100% waterproof, this time – we promise). But, as best I can tell, the broader public hasn’t bought into it at all, and the conservative side of politcs – for whatever reason – have largely avoided fanning the flames of paranoia. Even in the United States, most of the concern (outside the national security establishment) about China is focused on its growing economic influence, rather than its increasing military capabilities – a rerun of the “OMG the Japanese are outcompeting us” of the 1980s, rather than the existential threat the Soviet Union and the Cold War represented.

As such, I really don’t see how a little bit of Chinese espionage, in the context of a largely bipartisan defence policy, has any implications for Labor at all, and I’m not convinced that it’s going to automatically favour one side or the other of politics into the future.


« profile & posts archive

This author has written 782 posts for Larvatus Prodeo.

Return to: Homepage | Blog Index

30 responses to “Chinese hackers, and Labor”

  1. Katz

    Excellent post Robert.

    Michelle Grattan’s descent into mendacity is breathtaking.

  2. Russell

    “As such, I really don’t see how a little bit of Chinese espionage …. has any implications for Labor at all”

    I think the point is to make the government look laughably incompetent.

    If any serious implication could be attempted by the coalition it might be that the U.S. will never let us in on anything because we couldn’t keep it secret from the Chinese.

  3. patrickg

    Katz can you justly call it a descent? She’s been at Dead Sea levels for as long as I can remember.

  4. Hoa Minh Truong

    China couldn’t be trusted, the stolen invention is the most highlight strategy. In history, China had not much invention, except the gun power discovered in 1232 then to be used for celebration with fireworks, soy sauce is surely their owner, but noodle and spaghetti have not know yet which country made, Italian or Chinese?. Taoist couldn’t Chinese owner, the founder came from a Viet Ethnic group, that linked to Vietnam people. Sao Lin Kong Fu martial arts certainly taught by a monk from India in 499, and now it becomes apart of Chinese culture. However Confucian is Chinese owner, but its theory contains the sex discrimination and endorses the dynasty likely dictatorial regime in China. That reason causes communist regime often promotes the Confucian to its people and outside.
    China hungers the technology, they are needing expand the sovereign world wide, actually the arms race. In record, China has sent a lot of espionage agent hidden under the business, overseas student, resident, academic…they aim the defense, intelligent, high technology..now, the cyber to be a new target for their ambition…

  5. Mike Fitzsimon

    I’ve no reason to doubt that this attack was mounted by “the Chinese government” but every time I hear about “Chinese cyber-attacks”, I think to myself…

    Where is the largest population? China.
    Where is the largest number of PCs? Probably China.
    Where is the largest number of PCs with pirated copies of Windows? Probably China.
    Where is the largest number of PCs that aren’t getting their security updates? Probably China.
    Where is the largest number of PCs that are likely to be compromised by hackers? Probably China.
    Where is nearly every cyber-attack going to “appear” to come from? Probably China.

    The Chinese might not be squeaky clean, but they might be wearing other people’s dirt, too.

  6. Jacques de Molay

    Could’ve been China and might not have been either.

    Regardless screaming their name from the rooftops ensures a bit of extra funding coming ASIO’s way…

  7. Graham Bell

    This what comes from putting all your eggs in the one basket. Whether that is in concentrating too much of your security capability in one place, relying on too narrow a range of technologies, recruiting from a small pool of clones or focussing on a single spectrum of possibilities.

    Trying to make the current mess a Labor or Liberal matter is just plain silly. Although Attorney-General Dreyfus hasn’t exactly covered himself with glory here ….(he had made a fool of himself earlier this year by denying that the severe floods in Banana Shire at Theodore, Jambin, etc., were a disaster) …. please bear in mind that he is merely an office-holder in one particular party; the party as a whole cannot be blamed for his own stuff-ups or failures.

  8. nottrampis

    this made it as well!!

  9. paul burns

    The Chinese have enough respect for Australian spy agencies to build their new embassy in Canberra with Chinese labour and designs and so on so they aren’t compromised by ASIO or ASIS. This kind of thing goes on between spy agencies/countries ad infinitum but normally its not admitted to. Surely the most interesting aspect of this perennial storm in a tea cup is that the Lib. shadow Attorney-General was given a confidential briefing on the matter by ASIO, the contents of which he immediately went and blabbed on Sky TV so he could get political advantage.
    I, for one, do not feel our security is anywhere near in safe hands with Abbott and his orcs, now or in the future.

  10. BilB

    Did you all catch this article

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/26/opinion/sunday/preventing-a-us-china-cyberwar.html?_r=0

    This is not about school kids or super spys, it is about outright very aggressive theft. And it has been going on for a long time.

    I remember a member of an official government Chinese trade delegation being caught at Auckland airport with stolen clippings of New Zealand’s latest apple hybrids from a research facility that they had visited.

    China does not want to buy technology, they want to take it and then sell it back to the rest of the world.

  11. FFranklin

    So when is Four Corners going to turn their scrutinizing eye onto the Coalition’s policies? Almost two years and five minutes to an election and diddly squat.

  12. BilB

    That seems fitting, PB. The “orcs” of Abbott. To see them performing in parliament, this is exactly how they come across.

  13. Hoa Minh Truong

    I fully agree with Bild on 11 comment, China doesn’t want to buy the technology, but stolen is expected as the traditional blood since thousand year in historic record. I joined Vietnam war before 1975 and served into the intelligent unit at province, I deeply concerned about the danger of enemy penetrate into the head quarter, then the top secret of operation to be leaked and enemy could use it to gain the victory. Every time we suspected about the intelligence leaked, we had to change the plan, communication code, defense base…so when the ASIO discovered China hacker intruded, the big job could be faced, the national security plans to be reviewed or changed…those damage so much for nation and national interest.
    China is just a verbal friend, but the ruthless regime bears so much ambition to take over the world, they aim to replace US, but China is communist that is different with the democratic country.

  14. Tim Macknay

    Surely the most interesting aspect of this perennial storm in a tea cup is that the Lib. shadow Attorney-General was given a confidential briefing on the matter by ASIO, the contents of which he immediately went and blabbed on Sky TV so he could get political advantage.

    Brandis is a disgrace, without so much as an iota of integrity. The idea of him as the country’s chief law officer is sickening.

  15. Chris

    BilB @ 11 – governments using espionage for IP theft and commercial advantage is nothing new. Eg google for allegations of the US using echelon to give US companies commercial advantage or the French accused of spying on Boeing.

    Tim @ 15 – it’ll come back and bite the LNP again during their next term

  16. BilB

    It is like corruption, the fact that everyone does it to some degree does not make it right or good, Chris.

  17. Chris

    BilB – I’m not endorsing it, just think that if we are going to criticise China for doing so, we should also criticise our traditional allies for doing the same. ASIO famously bugged the original Chinese embassy in Australia.

    I do think there needs to be a reform of the IP laws though – eg copyright and patent terms are way too long. Medical related patents are a huge issue for poor countries and even to an extent countries like Australia. The system is setup to give advantage to already wealthy countries. Its no surprise that countries like India or China choose to give only lip service to enforcing IP laws – they have little to lose and a lot to gain.

  18. BilB

    What you are declaring there, Chris, is that the Chinese despite their numbers cannot be innovative and are creatively lazy preferring to steal IP instead.

  19. paul burns

    Bilb @ 19,
    During the Industrial Revolution the Americans famously suborned British nationals, or sent American spies, to ferret out British industrial technology, which the British alone had. The Americans then went on to build machinery and plant based on stolen British blueprints, or, in one case an American agent’s memorised picture of an entire factory lay-out.
    The Chinese are just doing the same thing really.

  20. BilB

    So that makes it OK does it, PB?

  21. Chris

    What you are declaring there, Chris, is that the Chinese despite their numbers cannot be innovative and are creatively lazy preferring to steal IP instead.

    Its not an either/or situation. They do both.

    The rate of innovation coming out of China will increase as their education and wealth levels increase. And one of the issues with our IP system is that without a good base of IP in the first place creating new IP can be a lot more difficult. Even researches in Australia have run into this where they are unable to do certain types of medical research because the techniques required to do the research are themselves patented. And for China there are explicit restrictions on technology exports because of their dual use capabilities – but at the same time they make non weapons related research more difficult and expensive.

  22. BilB

    Patents cannot prevent research, they can only prevent the comercialisation of patented IP.

    Whereas patents can restrict access for a time, having no patent protection prevents development even more. Where people cannot achieve a return for effort creativity withers, and where there is no hope of return for effort it withers even further.

    Chinese dominance of the plastics industry has dramatically stifled innovation largely because western buyers avoid locally manufactured product. The mechanism here is that Chinese producers offer a backhanded return to corporate buyers invisible to the tax regime of the buying country. For buyers to take a personal return from their national suppliers this carries the risk of audit trail exposure.

    The end result is that innovators have no incentive to improve the products natural to their culture. Hence we have department stores choked with endless repeats of the same products with an ever declining quality.

    Sound far fetched? I challenge you to spend the tens of thousands of dollars to patent a product, tool it, and find local representation for that product.

  23. BilB

    I should add that I now only bother with with products that I can sell myself personally. Someone else who has strong opinions on this is Dick Smith. Give him a call and see what he has to say about it.

  24. Chris

    Patents cannot prevent research, they can only prevent the comercialisation of patented IP.

    That’s simply not true. If someone has patented a technique you wish to use whether it be commercial or not you need to licence it. And the patent holder is under no obligation at all to licence it to you under any terms at all if they don’t wish to. Depending on the country there are some exemptions for research but those are getting narrower over time – eg in the US you can infringe a patent if the process is required to get FDA approval for a drug.

    Also there is no exemption even if you can prove that you and a hundred other people independently invented the same method. First to file wins regardless. Even if you only find out about the patent years later you are still liable.

    And then look at the atrocity that is business method patents.

    Whereas patents can restrict access for a time, having no patent protection prevents development even more. Where people cannot achieve a return for effort creativity withers, and where there is no hope of return for effort it withers even further.

    The patent term is simply too long. 20 years for software patents is an eternity. And too often its not really an innovate solution, but simply someone who has first tried to solve a specific problem. Patents this long stifle innovation because they prevent people from building upon what already exists (if the patent holder refuses to sell them a licence at any price) or that they could have without too much difficulty invented themselves anyway.

    The goal of patents originally was to maxmimise the rate of innovation by encouraging disclosure rather than keep trade secrets, but it has morphed instead as a way to maximise profit by acquiring patents whether there is an intent is to use them or not as excluding a competitor from using an invention can be more valuable than commercialising it.

    Sound far fetched? I challenge you to spend the tens of thousands of dollars to patent a product, tool it, and find local representation for that product.

    Well I have a few patents granted, but my employer looks after the details around commercialisation…

  25. philip travers

    Hush! Be quiet .BoB HAWKE ILLUSTRIOUS ONE IS HAVING A beer with Xin Jingpin because Jinping is his mate.He would like to have a beer at The Tankard Hotel,but the Australian University students there are calling a Strike.He would like to have a beer with all tank drivers of the time,but they all call him mate. .Kevin Rudd wont do it. His think tank became drink tank Yank. And The Clintons are his mates.

  26. paul burns

    Bilb @ 21,
    No. Just inevitable.

  27. Graham Bell

    Hoa Minh Truong @ 4:

    The Chinese have been very successful in using various non-military means to achieve their own ends for hundreds of years:
    – Strategic marriages,
    – Infiltration,
    – Keeping outsiders in ignorance by spreading disinformation (i.e. the true origin of silk),
    – Making outrageous claims (i.e. about inventions; about borders, about history),
    – Sheer bluff,
    – Assuming (unilaterally) that the gifts presented by visitors from faraway nations were tribute payments by those nations,
    – Espionage (political, commercial, religious, military, diplomatic, scientific).

    The Chinese are not going to change in this century or the next – so let’s just face up to that reality whenever we have dealings with them or whenever we attract their attention. Facing up to that reality – rather than believing what they tell us or, worse yet, believing our own fantasies about the Chinese – might help us survive whatever contact we have with the Chinese.

    The scholarly works of Professor Joseph Needham and Professor Ho Peng-yoke give credible pictures of inventions, discoveries and developments that the Chinese actually did make rather than what they claim to have made.

    H M Tr @ 14;

    That is one of the classic dilemmas in intelligence operations: Do you keep each part of your intelligence system isolated (as did the Nazi Germans) and lose effectiveness – or – do you allow each part to know what is happening in every other part and run the risk of having a leak in one part affect the whole system? Good luck if you can find the best solution to that dilemma.

  28. Hoa Minh Truong

    Thank for Graham Bell’s response and have the good idea, It is very hard to isolate the intelligent operation from local and central level in the most democratic country, the information to be shares, collaborated into the relevant parts. For example, an military operation could be linked to multiple department as intelligent unit, transport, weapon, map, commanders…each part could have a limited information, but the head quarter to be able hand over any details.
    However the dictatorial regimes as Nazi, communist, the intelligence could be kept secret absolutely by special unit as SS, KGB…their manner release the secret in a short time, so the leaking could avoid, even though it leaked, the enemy couldn’t raise the damage much.
    The democratic country couldn’t isolate the intelligence, but each part hand over some for the job. Therefore, security upgrade and often review those could reduce the damage.
    You are right, I expect you have the expert about China, but our country has been changed the leadership for each term government, China doesn’t, the communist party always being there.
    The best solution is extreme caution, actually the important agencies, we couldn’t stop China, likely the home owner have to watch the thief or intruder…

  29. Graham Bell

    Hoa Minh Truong @ 29

    There is indeed a problem of lack of continuity over the long term for Australian governments. There is – or rather, there was – some continuity in relationships with the Chinese in our public service and in our academia; continuity in the business sector was quite uncommon. Unfortunately, the craze for short-term employment contracts have lead to organizational amnesia and to breaches in long-term relationships with individual Chinese officials.