The Cyber Double Standard: The Fundamental Hypocrisy of US Power

In September 2012, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. government considers cyber-attacks to constitute acts of war that can justly be countered with conventional retaliation.

“Cyberattacks can amount to armed attacks triggering the right of self-defense and are subject to international laws of war, the State Department’s top lawyer said Tuesday,” the report stated clearly.

The hypocrisy of this position was obvious at the time, given what we knew about U.S. cyber-warfare against Iran and other enemies of the state. But the flagrant hypocrisy was all the more apparent following revelations from documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

According to reports this week in the New York Times, Der Spiegel, and elsewhere, the NSA conducted cyber-warfare against the Chinese company Huawei, created “back-doors” and “obtained information about the workings of the giant routers and complex digital switches that Huawei boasts connect a third of the world’s population, and monitored communications of the company’s top executives.” The Times puts it succinctly enough:

American officials have long considered Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, a security threat, blocking it from business deals in the United States for fear that the company would create “back doors” in its equipment that could allow the Chinese military or Beijing-backed hackers to steal corporate and government secrets.

But even as the United States made a public case about the dangers of buying from Huawei, classified documents show that the National Security Agency was creating its own back doors — directly into Huawei’s networks.

American officials, particularly members of the Obama administration, have for years stood on their pedestal in Washington, DC and condemned China for its cyber-warfare and espionage of the U.S. government and American businesses. In secret, though, they are acting in precisely the same way.

Given the State Departments conclusion that “cyber-attacks” violate international law and can trigger “the right to self-defense,” one has to assume the U.S. government believes China is justified in bombing Washington…right? If not, there has to be something terribly wrong with the logic of the U.S. position.

Back in October, two George Washington University professors explained in Foreign Affairs that the leaks of Snowden and Manning “undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it,” an essential ingredient in exercising world power. “This system” of American power “needs the lubricating oil of hypocrisy to keep its gears turning,” they explained. But the recent leaks show that Washington is “unable to consistently abide by the values that it trumpets.”

8 thoughts on “The Cyber Double Standard: The Fundamental Hypocrisy of US Power”

  1. There is a lack of subtlety in this analysis. Specifically, by implicitly defining cyber espionage as a form of cyber attack, this analysis fails to acknowledge that understanding ones enemies, or even ones's potential foes, is a prerequisite to establishing the level of shared expectations that is an essential aspect of the diplomacy involved in avoiding war.

    1. So, what you're saying is that the FedGov has to carry out cyber attacks so that it has street cred with the ChiComs. Yep, that'll get your agenda pushed down the road a good bit. The FedGov did the espionage thing at the Washington Naval Conference in 1922, by rifling the Japanese diplomatic pouch. What the FedGov got in the medium term was the Japanese resolving to get out of a treaty that they had been manipulated into signing, and in the long term it got the FedGov the attack on Pearl Harbor. The swine in DC are still the same. This time, the Pearl Harbor will be nuclear.

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