U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, pictured testifying in Congress earlier this month, said June 27 that the Chinese believe theft of intellectual property is not illegal. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The Chinese government feels that it’s in the clear when it comes to stealing data from US companies using cyber tools, an issue leaders of the two countries will address next month as part of dialogues on cybersecurity, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday.
Delivering remarks and taking questions at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution, Dempsey described the growth in data theft and the disagreement over its significance between senior US and Chinese officials.
“China’s particular niche in cyber has been theft of intellectual property and I’ve had some conversations about that with them, and the conversations generally, we tend to agree to disagree,” Dempsey said. “Their view is that there are no rules of the road in cyber, there are no laws that they’re breaking. There are no standards of behavior, and so we have asked them to meet with us in order to establish some rules of the road so that we don’t have these friction points in our relationship.”
The next round in the ongoing cyber dialogue, a dialogue that was initiated after US officials began to be more vocal about the threats emanating from China, is scheduled for next month.
Those discussions will come on the heels of disclosures by on-the-run leaker Edward Snowden of several efforts by the US intelligence community to hack into Chinese communications systems, revelations that have been met with displeasure from Chinese officials.
Dempsey made a point of differentiating between intelligence gathering activities, the type outlined by documents leaked by Snowden, and intellectual property theft.
“The activities that nations conduct in the intelligence area, have some pretty clear standards,” he said. “For example, if we move away from cyber, we run strategic reconnaissance flights outside of Chinese territorial waters for example, in order to gain some insights into the Chinese intentions. All countries on the face of the planet conduct those activities.”
The glut of intrusions from Chinese systems, a constant barrage that has grown exponentially in the last few years, has led some companies to use offensive cyber means of their own, or “hack back” capabilities. Experts say that, given the uncertainty as to what constitutes an offensive cyber attack as opposed to a defensive move, these low-level efforts could create international incidents. The trend worries Dempsey, he said.
“I’m very concerned about that, I have raised it as all the more reason for us to come together as a whole of government because we don’t want private cyber organizations conducting operations that could be perceived as hostile acts, and if they’re perceived as hostile acts it could lead us to conflict,” he said.
Part of the work to bolster US capabilities has been the establishment of US Cyber Command (CYBERCOM) in 2010, a sub unified command under US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) led by Gen. Keith Alexander, who also leads the National Security Agency.
Last year sources indicated that CYBERCOM was on the verge of being elevated to its own unified combatant command, putting it on equal footing with Strategic Command and making it one of only four unified commands that is not geographically defined. That position would emphasize how important cyber has become to military war fighting.
But in what appears to be a bit of a shift in thinking by the administration, Dempsey said that he didn’t anticipate an elevation of CYBERCOM in the immediate future.
“I’m actually content, the way that we’re organized right now,” he said. “If cyber becomes such a dominant factor in military operations that it warrants elevating it to a unified command, by the way, I anticipate that happening at some point, but at this point, STRATCOM with its global reach responsibilities as well as its base responsibilities is also able to manage the workload.”
But Dempsey wasn’t shy in his assessment of how important cyber has become.
“If you sense a renewed emphasis and effort, it’s because, as I said since I became the Chairman not even two years ago, the number of intrusions into our critical infrastructure have increased 17 fold,” he said. “Even at the risk of in some ways by demystifying it maybe reducing its deterrent value, I think we have to have a conversation with America about the potential impacts.”