U.S.-China still at odds on cybersecurity issues

President Barack Obama said he will continue to discuss matters of cybersecurity with the Chinese president on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit. Some U.S. lawmakers and experts think he should be doing more.

iStockPhoto / FCW

President Barack Obama said he will continue to discuss matters of cybersecurity with the Chinese president on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. But some lawmakers and experts think he should be doing more.

"We have deep concerns about our ability to protect the intellectual property of our companies," Obama said in a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 31 while kicking off the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit. Obama said the two leaders will have a "candid exchange about areas where we have significant differences -- issues like human rights, cyber and maritime issues."

In the fall of 2015, the two countries agreed that they will not "conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors," according to the White House.

But it remains to be seen if China has followed through on that promise.

"It doesn’t seem like much has really happened since the agreement in September," Sarah Granger, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, told FCW. "I haven’t seen any evidence of increased arrests in China for 'cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property' outlined in the agreement, even though the idea was for more cooperation on investigating crimes. The number of incidents reported in recent months looks to be similar to those before the agreement, so we have no real evidence of any changes yet."

China has been unofficially tagged as the country responsible for the massive Office of Personnel Management hack that compromised the personal information of more than 22 million Americans, including federal employees.

"I think China has not let up on cyberattacks, and this is Obama's silent war," Jason Maloni, leader of the data security and privacy team at LEVICK, told FCW. "I think Obama will be pressing them harder to curtail the cyberattacks coming from the region, and that’s just not China -- it's [also] North Korea."

Maloni said one of the reasons why it's difficult for China to restrain those activities is because many hackers' livelihoods depend on it. "They are not doing the minimum, and I'm sure that’s what President Obama is going to press Xi on," Maloni said.

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), whose computer and committee networks were hacked by someone traced back to Beijing, told FCW that "not even a little bit" has been done when it comes to the cybersecurity agreement. Smith is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

"There is a deep concern that if the Chinese government penetrates [the Pentagon], as we think they are trying to do, can they turn off a water supply?" Smith said. "What mischief can be unleashed?"

Despite the skepticism, Obama and Xi both had positive outlooks.  

"On the basis of respecting each other's core interests and major concerns, we should seek active solutions through dialogue and consultation," Xi told members of the press at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. "Even when this is not possible, for the time being, we should manage them constructively and avoid misunderstanding and misperception or escalation, and prevent big disruptions to the overall interests of China-U.S. cooperation."

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