John Stokes

Google poses Obama a problem

Google poses Obama a problem
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Google’s decision to publicly confront the Chinese government over cyber attacks that have been hitting Google customers for the past year or so poses a difficult challenge for the Obama administration. The threat by Google to shut down its operations in China over the attacks is the first public acknowledgement by a major US corporation of the attacks which the US intelligence community has known about for almost a decade.

The facts are that China has been waging a cyber war against the US government and companies that involve literally millions of attacks each day. Every major US corporation operating in China has been targeted, as have universities, research laboratories and other American companies that have intellectual property worth stealing. The US estimates that $50 billion in corporate secrets are stolen each year and that unknown quantities of government and national security networks have been penetrated.

US intelligence has set up the largest counter cyber espionage effort in American history – codenamed Byzantine Foothold and Byzantine Hades - to try to counter the attacks, so far without success.

Until now, these efforts have been hidden behind the scenes and the extent to which US security has been compromised has never been disclosed. However, now that Google has decided to go public, the government is faced with a choice: take on the Beijing regime and stand with its own Fortune 100 companies, all of whom are victims of Chinese cyber espionage, or ignore the problem and pretend it isn’t happening.

President Obama made cyber security one of the pillars of his election campaign and he promised to take aggressive action. Since then, nothing significant has happened and US intelligence continues to flounder. Last month, after more than a year of indecision, the administration appointed Howard Schmidt to be the White House cyber security czar.

While the appointment itself is welcome, it came only after all the qualified candidates turned the job down, in part because they were not convinced that Obama is really serious about tackling the problem. Schmidt had the same job in the administration of George W Bush and was seen as completely ineffectual and a lightweight who both the political appointees and the bureaucracy completely marginalised.

After leaving the White House, he went to head up cyber security at eBay where has lasted only a short time before moving on. His reputation in Silicon Valley is that of a sergeant being given a general’s job and he will have little success joining Google in leading the charge against China.