The New York Times is the latest media outlet to liken the quiet standoff between the United States and China over cyber security to "a new Cold War." In a Sunday evening piece of news analysis, the paper's David E. Sanger wrote about "how different the worsening cyber-cold war between the world's two largest economies is from the more familiar superpower conflicts of past decades — in some ways less dangerous, in others more complex and pernicious." The article's peg is clearly the recent spate of cyber attacks on U.S. companies, including The Times itself, that have come from Chinese origins. In fact, a lot of them can be traced back to a single neighborhood in the suburbs of Shanghai where the People's Liberation Army has its cyber command. The Chinese deny any involvement in the attacks. In fact, they blame us.
The "cyber Cold War" metaphor's been made before, but this time it seems serious — and not just because it's the Grey Lady that's making it. The entire nation got a wake up call when Obama called out cybersecurity in his State of the Union address and issued an executive order on the matter the following day. The order came after an Obama-backed cybersecurity bill failed to make it through the Senate last year. Within a couple of weeks, the cybersecurity firm Mandiant released a massive report revealing the origin of a large number of cyber attacks again U.S. companies, government agencies and critical infrastructure were indeed coming from a single facility on the outskirts of Shanghai. It's become frightfully apparent, frightfully quickly that there is indeed a war happening in cyberspace, one that stands to affect the average citizen rather seriously if it escalates.
The Obama administration, however, has been shy about naming China the enemy in this war, because exactly what it does not want is for this new Cold War to escalate. "We were told that directly embarrassing the Chinese would backfire," an unnamed intelligence official told The Times. "It would only make them more defensive and more nationalistic." You would not like China when it's more defensive and more nationalistic.