Beijing is pushing its Internet power outside of China into the rest of the world. At home, it controls the flow of information on the Web domestically through censoring and filtering technologies as well as attempts to steer conversations or drown out opposition on social media sites by government-paid commentators, known in China as the 50 Cent Party for the going rate per posting. What the New York Times and other hacks demonstrate is the desire to shape international political narratives as well as gather information from those who might influence the debates on topic of importance to Beijing. The Times’ worry that the hackers might take the paper offline on election night also reveals an attempt at intimidation as well as influence.
What will also be dispiritingly familiar in the aftermath of the attacks is the discussion about what can be done. Over the last several years, U.S. government officials have mounted an increasingly public campaign of naming and shaming China. But this has had little effect, and the Chinese response has been one of denial, calling the accusations “irresponsible,” noting that hacking is illegal under Chinese law, and pointing out that China is also a victim of cyber crime, most of it coming from IP addresses in Japan, South Korea, and the United States.
So what can be done? Private security experts and U.S government officials say they are getting better at attributing attacks to groups and individuals. If that is the case, then the United States may begin to think about targeted financial sanctions or visa restrictions on identified hackers.