Thursday February 27, 2020


August 6, 2015

The Obama administration is planning to retaliate against China for a cyberattack on the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that occurred earlier this year. In this massive data breach, hackers were believed to have compromised the personal data of over 20 million federal government employees.

According to the Washington-based newspaper The Examiner, the White House is considering a range of options for retaliation, including diplomatic protests, actions against Chinese agents in the U.S., economic sanctions, and retaliatory cyberattacks on Chinese networks. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper believes the retaliation is necessary and meaningful. “Not responding to the hack could inspire bolder attacks in the future,” he said. However, it is uncertain when the retaliation will be carried out since intelligence officials have been struggling to find an option to can make China “pay the price” without escalating the cyber conflict.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice is seeking legal actions to hold Chinese hackers accountable for the OPM hack. Last May, the Justice Department announced indictment against five Chinese military officers, who were alleged to be associated with the People’s Liberation Army’s computer hacking unit, for illegally obtaining corporate secrets from several American companies based in west Pennsylvania, including Westinghouse Electric and the United States Steel Corporation. It was the first time the U.S. government filed an indictment against a foreign country for cyberattacks. The charges provoked a strong response from the Chinese government, who suspended high-level cyber talks with the U.S. in 2014.

The OPM hack is one of the most devastating data breaches targeting a U.S. government agency. “Every person given a government background check for the last 15 years was probably affected,” said the OPM in an official statement, “hackers stole ‘sensitive information,’ including addresses, health and financial history, and other private details, from 19.7 million people who had been subjected to a government background check, as well as 1.8 million others, including their spouses and friends.” According to ABC news, hackers may have intruded into OPM’s systems by using the credential information stolen from the systems of a government contractor. The massive data breach even led to the resignation of then OPM director Katherine Archuleta.

According to various news sources, the hack was backed by a “foreign entity or government.” Investigators and intelligence experts have allegedly traced the origin of the hacking to China, but by now most U.S. officials were reluctant to openly blame China.

Surprisingly, the Chinese authorities neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in the hack. “China itself is also a victim of cyberattacks,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on June 5. “China resolutely tackles cyberattack activities in all forms.”

Cyber security has rapidly ascended as a key policy issue in U.S. – China relations. In this year’s cabinet-level U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, U.S. officials expressed deep concerns over China’s government-sponsored cyber espionage. “On cyberspace, in particular, we remain deeply concerned about Chinese government-sponsored cyber-enabled theft,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said at the Dialogue.

By the end of the Dialogue, officials from both sides had agreed to constitute a code of conduct in cyberspace and work more closely to avoid confrontation. “We will work with the United States and other countries to work in the spirit of openness to properly address the relevant issues,” said State Councilor Yang Jiechi. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also said there “was an honest discussion… without accusations, without any finger-pointing” on cyberattacks “and whether or not it was sanctioned by government.”

The Chinese government has repeatedly denied any involvement in the cyberattacks on foreign companies and governments. Adam Siegel, a professor from MIT and an expert in cyber security studies, said more efforts should be made at home. “With little hope for change in Chinese behavior in the short term, the most important “what to do” will remain self help—technological innovation and better defenses,” he said.


For more information on this topic, please visit the following links:

ABC News – “China Is ‘Leading Suspect’ in Massive Hack of US Government Networks

The Diplomat –  “US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue: Putting on a Brave Face

The New York Times – “U.S. Decides to Retaliate Against China’s Hacking“;

Hacking of Government Computers Exposed 21.5 Million People

The Examiner – “White House ready to retaliate against China for OPM data breach

Reuters – “U.S. airs deep concerns over cyber security in China meetings

CNN – “China might be building vast database of federal worker info, experts say

Council on Foreign Affairs  – “Chinese Cyber Espionage: We Know the Who, How, Why, and Why it Matters–We’re Missing the What to Do

For Chinese language news on this topic, see the sources below:

人民网  – “专家:美欲对华网络报复凸显冷战思维 需加紧完善我国家网络安全战略

腾讯网  – “罗援:美若网络制裁中国可能自伤更深
Compiled and edited by Junxiao Liang.