COVID-19: China Rises in Ranks of US-Accused Hackers

As America’s new Enemy No. 1, China is now the frontrunner in the “bad guy” sweepstakes, writes Michael Brenner.

(CC BY 2.0, Wesley Fryer, Flickr)

By Michael Brenner

Hacking is back in the headlines. The Chinese are accused of breaking into the computers of unnamed American labs – corporate &/or non-corporate — doing research on a coronavirus vaccine. The operative words are “China/Chinese” and “hacking.” The two go together like gin & tonic.

That’s a sign of upward mobility for the Cathay crowd; just a short time ago, Russia was the subject noun. True, they haven’t been displaced entirely. Russia/Moscow/Kremlin/Putin still get a fair amount of electronic ink in stories where “hack” is the active verb. No one can deny, though, that Beijing now holds pride of place – as logically it should.

Once you have been officially designated America’s Enemy No. 1, a country is awarded all the lavish attention that a frontrunner in the “bad guy” sweepstakes has earned by its presumed malevolence.

An alleged plot to steal the super-secret formula(s) destined to endow a few more billionaires is only the latest in a string of charges leveled at the villain from the East. Let’s not forget that Washington has had to mount a robust preventive war against Huawei to deny it either the right to challenge the global commercial supremacy of its American rivals or stealthily to insert hacking devices into the bits of gadgetry it sells — as the U.S. claims.

We should know something about the subject. That is what our own IT companies having been doing for years via software as well as hardware at the behest of our intelligence agencies and in their own business interests.

But consistency is the hobgoblin of unpatriotic minds when it comes to espionage. The latter charge justifies all-out war on Huawei’s bid for greater market share. President Donald Trump and gang have gone so far as to muscle Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, into arresting the company’s CFO at the Vancouver airport.

The White House has confected charges that Huawei violated U.S. law on commerce with Iran — a law that itself violates international law and custom. The CEO now languishes in the insalubrious care of the Canadian Mounties chaperoned by Sgt. Preston and his faithful husky King — while Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Peter Navarro, Trump’s assistant, decide how much ransom they can squeeze out of the Chinese.

Sanofi head office in Paris.(Tangopaso, Wikimedia Commons)

This is the background to the latest falderal about the coronavirus. Do the Chinese engage in commercial spying? Of course! So do we – and everybody else. Moreover, it has become standard practice for the U.S. to demand all sorts of commercial concessions by placing the target under political and/or military duress.

At the moment we are trying to strong-arm SANOFI-AVENTIS, the Franco-British pharmaceutical firm, into giving the U.S. preferred access to any anti-viral drug they may produce on the specious grounds that the aggregate investment of dollars into the company is greater than the aggregate investment of EUROs and Sterling.

That would allow Trump to take credit for curing the illness he has claimed to be a hoax. It would make the USA the greatest at medical innovation as well as at infections and deaths. SANOFI’s CEO at first acquiesced — for reasons the MSM have shown not the least interest in uncovering.

Perhaps, the White House calculation is that he along with the heads of government in France and the U.K. would be in such dread of Washington’s withdrawing the defense umbrella that shields them from the threatening depredations from Russia, Iran, ISIS and the Houthis that they’ll cede to Washington’s outrageous ploy. It’s worked on innumerable occasions before – so why not now? So far, Paris and London have resisted; we will see what the likely “compromise” turns out to be.

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Back to the Oriental hackers. Let’s take a look at the accusations and their meaning.  First, what’s the connection between “hacking” and electronic surveillance? The former refers to illicit means and methods for gaining access to privileged data stored on a computer or on a server. Once acquired, it could be deleted, copied, manipulated or used for one purpose or another.

Surveillance usually refers to illicit acquisition of electronic communications between computers, phone phones, etc. Each of those hardware items also can serve as a point of entry to your physical space permitting the intruder to see as well as hear everything that you are doing.

The United States government possesses the means to engage in universal surveillance – as it has for almost a decade. That is in addition to its hacking capabilities. Let us recall that the one indisputable example of surveillance/hacking employed as an attack on the valued asset of another country was the American/Israeli insertion of the STUXNET virus into Iranian computers in order to cripple their nuclear research program. This was only one example of the vast arsenal of aggressive cyber warfare weapons that NSA and the CIA have developed.

Universal Surveillance

Surveillance (e.g. electronic spying) nowadays is universal and comprehensive. It can be focused on a specific target insofar as operators can devote time and tools to break down security defenses and, of course, to process the material obtained. Mass data collection is accumulated in huge electronic storage sites where it may either lie dormant or be subject to algorithmic sorting.

In theory, algorithms could be deployed to erase certain classes of material, e.g. that acquired from Angela Merkel’s cell phone. That is to say, certain persons, offices, or subjects could be excluded in principle — whether for political or personal reasons. Ethics are irrelevant — as are privacy principles which, in the U.S., have been so diluted by law as to be meaningless.

Just last week, the Congress renewed its grant of authority to federal agents to conduct surveillance without a warrant from the FISA court. No debate, no opposition. In any case, collaboration among the five English-speaking governments who participate in the Five Eyes surveillance alliance help each other out by doing things that might be awkward for Washington.  

So, when Merkel complains that the Chinese have been monitoring her cell calls, she is charging someone over there with doing something we did routinely a while back, for which we never apologized, which we likely are still doing, and which she pronounced no big deal.

Duke University Hacking for Defense students tour an engine inspection bay, Nov. 15, 2019, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. (U.S. Air Force, Vernon Young Jr.)

A second issue: Can anyone be sure who exactly is doing the hacking &/or surveillance? The answer is “no” in most instances — at least, not without a reasonable doubt. During the heyday of hysteria over supposed Russian hacking, it serves several parties’ interest to take a generous appraisal of evidence.

Were Cyrillic letters used? Did it seem to originate from a Russian source? Did our algorithm detect signs of a Moscow location? Were there statistically significant uses of certain words: Volga, Tsar (not Czar), borscht, troika, Stroganoff, Decembrist Dachas? Not what reasonable people would call an exact science.

There may be forensic evidence; is it possible to match the “ballistics” of the intruder (or traces of its presence) to particular sources? Not easy, not precise – from what we know of this recondite subject. A forensic examination apparently can determine whether a “hacked” document has been downloaded (requiring the presence of a savvy insider) or accessed externally.

Indeed, a former technical director at NSA, William Binney, did such a systematic study of the Hillary Clinton material released byWikiLeaks. He concluded that it had definitely been downloaded rather than hacked. He has been studiously ignored.

Bill Binney: Not interviewed. (Miquel Taverna / CCCB via Flickr)

Bill Binney: Studiously ignored. (Miquel Taverna / CCCB via Flickr)

As to the alleged Chinese hack of coronavirus material, the above questions should be addressed before claims are made. In fact, we are presented with no evidence whatsoever — not even the names of the labs supposedly hacked. We are expected to take at face value what the White House, what Mike Pompeo, what other administration unworthies say.

One would be a fool, or the editor of an MSM news outlet, to do so. Not only are all of those parties proven liars, but the entire network of spy/surveillance/intelligence agencies has a stunning record of repeated lying on just about every matter of consequence since 2001. This is not an interpretation or opinion; it is a well- documented fact.

Compounding the doubts about the accuracy and importance of the alleged Chinese action are a large number of more garden-variety issues.  The corporate lab in question (if, indeed, it is one and corporate) is only 1-of-14 designated by the White House as carrying the greatest potential for producing an effective, safe vaccine. They are being shoveled money at “warp speed” – whatever that means.

In addition, there are 130 other labs engaged in similar research that will not get exceptional government support. Have the Chinese figured out which is most promising? Do they know something we don’t? Or are they spreading their chips around the table?

And let’s not forget that companies/labs in other countries are just as capable as their American counterparts — at Oxford, in Germany, at SANOFI-AVENTIS in Paris, in Japan, and — oh yes – China.  All the jingoists in Washington can visualize are those outfits that fly the Star-and-Stripes. To their parochial minds, it follows that the inherently inferior Chinese would sneak around to steal whatever miracles the nonpareil Yanks are accomplishing.

A research microbiologist harvests samples of coronavirus at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. (U.S. Army)

This tawdry affair distracts from the more compelling question: should the most qualified people around the world be encouraged to cooperate as much as feasibly possible rather than be cast as Olympic contestants for the greater glory of Donald Trump and the profits of American business?

As an ancillary concern, we should be alert to the dangers lurking in an approach that stresses speedy results. Developing a safe vaccine is a particularly daunting challenge since the coronavirus is imperfectly understood — widening normal confidence margins about overall, long-term effectiveness and the risk of adverse side-effects.

In theory, the FDA and the CDC are vigilant in ensuring the public health against such mishaps. The blunt truth, though, is that the FDA has little credibility given the caliber and political bias of its current leadership. That is manifest in the equivocal words about Hydroxychloroquine that quickly appear after Trump launches one of his quack pitches for his pet remedy. 

Even the CDC’s reputation has been tarnished — rightly so — by its pliable director, Dr. Robert Redfield, who increasingly has demonstrated an unseemly readiness to yield to White House pressure tactics. Then there is Dr. Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. Birx, who made her entire career in the military, now serves as a Trump minion who stands ready to lend whatever scientific cachet she still possesses to whatever her commander-in-chief dictates. Thus, she instructs the CDC to recalibrate its tally of Covid-19 deaths because she believes they are too high — a conclusion that she shares with only one other person.

So, it is by no means implausible to imagine a situation whereby the FDA gives swift approval to an American sponsored drug prematurely that is less effective than foreign rivals &/or can cause a considerable number of collateral deaths. After all, we as a country tolerate a president whose callous incompetence and pathological ego-mania are the cause of tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths — and still counting.

Our tolerance for such a massive death toll also has something to do with the demographics — it is overwhelmingly the old who die. Entire nursing homes have been decimated. Mortality rates higher than those recorded during the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century (even worse in England, which largely shares our practices).

The brutal truth is that present-day American society places relatively little value on the treatment of the elderly — millions of whom are warehoused in dreary facilities, poorly staffed and maintained.  State and local monitoring authorities are notoriously negligent in performing their oversight duties – and penalties for abuses virtually non-existent. 

Ugly words? Yes. The reality is even uglier.

Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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10 comments for “COVID-19: China Rises in Ranks of US-Accused Hackers

  1. Zhu
    May 27, 2020 at 22:25

    Many Americans want the Chinese to be as poor and unhappy S the Iraqis. :-(

  2. May 27, 2020 at 21:19

    “At the moment we are trying to strong-arm SANOFI-AVENTIS, the Franco-British pharmaceutical firm, into giving the U.S. preferred access to any anti-viral drug they may produce …”

    Should European rejoice or lament that the vaccine will be tested on American public first? I am not an anti-vaxer, but there were attempts of vaccine with undesired effects etc., including putative vaccines for the previous dangerous corona viruses.

  3. jdd
    May 27, 2020 at 10:41

    Actually, Bill Binney, in October of 2017, at the request of the president, gave a one-hour intelligence briefing to then CIA Director MikePompeo, proving the lie of Russian hacking. Pompeo sat on the information, never forwarding it to President Trump. A couple of months later, Sean Henry,speaking before the House Intel Committee, admitted that Crowdstrike had no proof of Russian hacking. This testimony, we have now learned, was suppressed by Adam Schiff. Thus, the entire Russiagate hoax could have been ended before the American people had ever heard of Robert Swan Mueller III. The nation would have been spared three years of hyper-partisanship, and the President would have been free to pursue his stated intention of friendly relations with Russia and cooperation against terrorism.

  4. George Simon
    May 27, 2020 at 10:09

    “Cyber is a great business. It’s growing geometrically because there is never a permanent solution, it’s a never-ending business.”

    “Artificial Intelligence is giving us powers and prowess we’ve never had before. Cyber is a real domain of power.”

    -Benjamin Netanyahu

  5. May 27, 2020 at 09:51

    Reading the article, it brings to mind poor hydroxychloroquine, which had the bad luck to have the support of President Trump. You search for the pros and cons and find a lot of educated folks pointing out promising in vitro findings and small studies and anecdotal evidence that it should not be dismissed as has been done by most pundits.

    With hesitation but having to be honest, our president makes an easy target but the Trumpian phobia has become so pervasive that it clouds our judgment by creating the knee jerk response to just about anything he proposes or supports. That is not in anybody’s best interest, certainly not the best interests of our and the world’s population.

    When face things like this pandemic and scientists are unable to save us, finger pointing is the name of the game. We are afraid and angry and somebody has to pay. To some its Trump, others China.

    Mistakes? You bet. Based on where the virus came from, I was suspicious that the virus was over-hyped. I suspect there were many like me. I and they were wrong. It’s pretty bad stuff but still far less the opportunistic purveyors of fear.

    America needs to get back to work and the children back to school. We need to do a better job with the elderly like me and build our defense based on what we know about who gets the virus and who is likely to die from it.

    • Anonymous
      May 28, 2020 at 22:34

      The “trumpian phobia” is no longer a phobia when it’s used to attack – it’s just a dog-pile.

      I grew up with a mother that I wager is one of many chameleons that loves an excuse to attack someone with seeming moral justification for any reason. She used to practically be enamored with trump until it fell out of fashion – and started saying she never liked him to begin with. I really doubt this is as uncommon as we’d like to pretend…

  6. Sally Snyder
    May 27, 2020 at 08:10

    Here is an interesting look at what Russia has to say about Washingon’s “blame China game”:

    viableopposition (dot) blogspot (dot) com/2020/05/covid-19-and-china-blame-game.html

    Fingerpointing is certainly not the way to solve the pandemic and is just another part of the new Cold War narrative that is brewing in the halls of Washington.

    • May 27, 2020 at 22:55

      Sally, you made a huge error/sin. Yes, what Lavrov said was very sensible, but admitting that would “make Putin happy”, and that is something that “we” cannot approve.

      On loosely related topic [Reuters] “We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion. If we have to, we will, but we sure would like to avoid it,” Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall Billingslea told the Hudson Institute think tank.

      Russia mastered the art of responding to such challenges within admirably limited budget. Putin is a tightwad and knows a thing or two about military programs, something that cannot be said about the civilians in charge in USA. If USA had a good kind of “hyper-partisanship”, Democrats would clobber the Administration on that issue, but, alas, military insanity is mostly bi-partisan. Basically, when two parties agree, this is one kind of nonsense, and when they fight like cats and dogs, another.

  7. rosemerry
    May 26, 2020 at 16:47

    The constant assumption of the USA that their “intellectual property” is stolen because they are so far advanced in every field is quite grotesque. To assume Russia or China (or Cuba!) could not possibly produce anything without the major value being US-American is certainly false, though its capacity for spying, destruction and self-delusion could perhaps make the USA number one.

    • Joe Wallace
      May 29, 2020 at 20:01


      Your observation is right on the money. Our unquestioned (and possibly deluded) assumption is that we rule the roost in all fields, and other countries will lose if we withhold our intellectual property from them. But what if a few countries have surpassed us in some fields? Excellence is rare, but it is not unique to the “exceptionalist” United States. We should not deceive ourselves into thinking that we have nothing to gain from intellectual property developed outside the U.S.

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