China News

Is Spying an Art or a Crime?

Today, the Cold War is morphing into the Code War.
Peter Isackson, Daily Devil’s Dictionary, Israeli spyware, Pegasus spyware revelations, Israeli spyware targeting journalists, cybertheft, NSO spyware, intellectual property theft, NSO Group Israel, spying on human rights activists

© astel design / Shutterstock

July 21, 2021 07:09 EDT

The New York Times on Monday reported that the US has accused China “of breaching Microsoft email systems used by many of the world’s largest companies.” On the same day, The Washington Post announced the findings of an investigation into “spyware licensed by an Israeli firm to governments for tracking terrorists and criminals.” The Pegasus spyware supplied by the Israeli firm NSO targeted “journalists, human rights activists, business executives and two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” as well as three sitting presidents and three current prime ministers, a king and a host of high-profile officials around the world.

With American troops wending their way home from the 20-year-long hot war in Afghanistan, the new cold war that recently became a dominant theme in American electoral politics has taken a curious turn. The original Cold War had meaning because it appeared to be a largely equitable match between the United States and the Soviet Union. That changed with the implosion of the USSR in 1991. What didn’t change was the psychological dependence of American administrations on their ability to identify existential threats from abroad. What better way, after all, to distract from the growing disarray visible within its own society?

Are Americans Waiting for a Cyber Apocalypse?


The decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union demonstrated the scope of the problem. In his 2000 presidential campaign, grammatically challenged George W. Bush lamented the fact that the nation had lost the reassuring feeling of living in “a dangerous world” in which “you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them, and it was clear who them was.” Bush was nevertheless convinced that there was an enemy on whom the nation could concentrate its fears.

Just eight months into his first term, after being elected by the Supreme Court, Bush got lucky. Islamic terrorism stepped in to play the role of archvillain, becoming the steed three presidents would ride for the next two decades, though its effect would wear with time. Despite the FBI’s persistent campaign to incite rudderless young Muslims to play the role of domestic terrorists — even funding plots that were subsequently “thwarted” by the FBI itself — homegrown Islamic terrorism has never lived up to its role as the existential threat the nation’s leaders wished for. That’s why Russia and China are back.

The response to Islamic terrorism has been so chaotic and mismanaged that, instead of unifying the nation as it once did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it has had the effect of fragmenting society beyond recognition. Americans now live to hate and cancel other Americans. The most identifiable enemies are people’s own neighbors or fellow citizens with contrasting mindsets.

After the debacle of Trump’s election in 2016, establishment Democrats seeking a scapegoat focused on Russia as the source of the nation’s deepest fears. Their marketing geniuses imagined what they termed “collusion” between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Republicans preferred to focus on China, though the business wing of the Republican party continues to see China as a burgeoning marketplace for its goods. 

Now that Russia and China practice the virtues of capitalism, it has become more difficult to frame the rivalry in purely military terms, though the pressure to launch a new arms race is as real as ever. But that has more to do with the fact that the military-industrial complex has become the core of the industrial economy. The new focus is on the notion of cyberthreat. The Cold War is morphing into the Code War.

Embed from Getty Images

In April, The Times reported that the Biden administration had “imposed extensive new sanctions on Russia” for the famous SolarWinds hack. It did so on the grounds that the Russian government may have been involved, though, as reported, it is clearly a question of belief rather than established fact: “Federal investigators and cybersecurity agents believe a Russian espionage operation — most likely Russia‘s Foreign Intelligence Service — is behind the SolarWinds attack.” One of the curious features of the SolarWinds attack is that nobody seems to know if there were any consequences other than the gathering of economic information. “The purpose of the hack remains largely unknown,” WhatIs reports.

If the complaint about Russian and Chinese industrial spying is little more than rebranded old news in the Russiagate tradition, the most substantial piece of new news is The Washington Post’s scoop about NSO’s software. The fact that it was used to spy on the widest diversity of targets by various governments not averse to exaggerated forms of despotism makes it distinctive and seriously troubling. This isn’t industrial espionage — it’s people espionage.

What has been the reaction in Israel? While the Israeli government has remained silent, The Washington Post notes that the “NSO Group firmly denies false claims made in your report which many of them are uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability of your sources, as well as the basis of your story.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Uncorroborated theory:

1. A common way of describing a boatload of unconnected facts that all point toward a person’s or an institution’s accountability

2. Most of what appears in the news to justify the aggressive foreign policy Americans now believe is a feature of their nation’s identity

Contextual Note 

The New York Times described the latest scandal in these terms: “A major Israeli cyber-surveillance company, NSO Group, came under heightened scrutiny Sunday after an international alliance of news outlets reported that governments used its software to target journalists, dissidents and opposition politicians.” A person suspected of a major crime is arrested and eventually charged. In today’s neoliberal world, a company, even in the presence of massive evidence, is merely subjected to “heightened scrutiny.”

The goal of those using the software is the theft of private information and includes setting up kidnaps and murders, allegedly including the gruesome killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Reuters explains what the US Justice Department believes to be the goal of the Chinese hackers: “The campaign targeted trade secrets in industries including aviation, defense, education, government, health care, biopharmaceutical and maritime industries.” In other words, China’s crime is industrial spying rather than political espionage. It is about property rather than people, or what Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco condemned as an attempt “to steal what other countries make.”

Historical Note

It is an observable fact in the functioning of today’s legal systems that protecting private property is far more important than the security of the population. National interest has come to be synonymous with corporate interest. The nations whose corporations historically grew by stealing the resources of the rest of the world after subjecting their populations to colonial rule see no crime as heinous as the attempts of those exploited nations and regions to use modern technology, not to steal, but to learn how to exploit the same processes the advanced economies have built.

Stealing ideas and processes — or industrial plagiarism — has always been a feature of dynamic economies. Defenders of the letter of the law complain that violating patents kills innovation. On the contrary, the prevention of the transfer of immaterial knowledge encourages monopoly. That not only stifles innovation but creates the conditions for various forms of oppression, including the ability to steal with impunity from weaker rivals. In October 2020, Business Insider reported the allegation against Amazon. An antitrust report by the House Judiciary Committee determined that “Amazon uses third-party seller data to copy the site’s most popular products.”

The Times offers this historical reminder: “While there is nothing new about digital espionage from Russia and China — and efforts by Washington to block it — the Biden administration has been surprisingly aggressive in calling out both countries and organizing a coordinated response.” Biden seeks to be remembered not as the new FDR, but as the defender of the neoliberal order and the consolidation of the corporate oligarchy as the virtual government overseeing a form of democracy that has been reduced to a set of electoral rituals.

Capitalists will always seek to steal what others have done. That is called getting an edge on the competition. Sometimes they can do it legally, but often they will do it illegally after taking a maximum number of precautions to avoid being caught. In today’s world of asymmetric economic warfare, the stronger corporations will get away with it, and the stronger nations will find effective ways of punishing those that are trying to catch up.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member