When it comes to China, Americans worry about two things the most: the economy and cybersecurity.
Sixty-seven percent of US adults said the large amount of American debt held by Beijing is a “very serious” problem, while 60 percent felt trepidation about the loss of American jobs to the Asian economies, according to a new Pew Research Center report. Third on the list are cyberattacks from China, which 54 percent of respondents said were a major concern even before revelations in June that US federal workers had been compromised by a data hack that many experts believe originated in China.
The figures, which come ahead of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s US visit this month, highlight a broader shift in what troubles Americans. In 2012, 78 and 71 percent of the public respectively saw American debt held by Beijing and job loss to China as serious problems, while only 50 percent said the same of cyberattacks from China.
But as more hacking incidents make headlines, public attention has turned to the dangers of online attacks. As of 2014, 70 percent of Americans considered cyberattacks in general a top threat to the nation’s security. “With technology advancing faster than ever before, cybersecurity has become a major concern,” Al Jazeera America reported in December.
China has over the past year been at the center of cybersecurity controversies relating to the US government and American companies.
Following months of disruptions, users in China lost all access to Google’s Gmail service in December, even through third-party programs such as Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail.
“Most reports on the outage suggest that China’s ‘Great Firewall’ is responsible for the blocking,” The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time. “The so-called ‘Great Firewall’ blocks access to certain websites, including those the Chinese government finds politically objectionable, and also monitors people’s Internet activity within the country.”
In March, code repository website GitHub, widely used by both individual programmers and software companies to collaborate on projects, was flooded with Internet traffic in an attack that security experts said was an attempt by China to cripple anti-censorship tools.
A massive breach in June of the US government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM) – one that compromised up to 21 million people – has also been attributed by some officials to China, though the Obama administration has refrained from publicly laying blame. And in August, news broke that Chinese cyber spies have had access to top US officials’ private emails since at least 2010.
Such incidents have led to debates about what the US should do in response to cyberattacks and espionage, with some experts calling for the government to take a stronger position.
At a cybersecurity event hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington last month, cyber policy expert Robert Knake warned that the message the US might be sending other countries is: “If you’re stealing this information for traditional espionage purposes, it doesn’t cross this red line ... and it’s not the kind of thing that we would use economic sanctions for.”
Others, however, advocate further international discourse and urge restraint. Indeed, President Jinping’s visit could provide a crucial opportunity to “ease the growing cyberconflict between Washington and Beijing,” wrote Jason Healey, director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative and columnist for the Monitor’s Passcode section.
If the Obama administration practices some smart diplomacy – and ignores US hardliners calling for blood – it's possible to reach a concord to reduce tensions and dramatically increase stability between the two nations. If the US looks to “retaliate against” or “punish” China, as security hawks are advocating, then the situation may escalate out of control.
[T]he history of cyberconflict shows that such aggression worsens national security. ... But in this case, if Washington tries to coerce Beijing with threats or punishment, expect China to respond in kind, continuing the escalatory spiraling of a classic security dilemma.
Obama should work to reduce digital tensions. If that fails, then both Xi and the international community will recognize that the US retaliated only after seeking the peaceful option.