Cyberwar vs Cyberintelligence

300px-Minuteman3launch 1

Ellen Nakashima and John Pomfret have an interesting article on China’s exploration of internet-based national security capabilities. But one unfortunate aspect of it is a tendency to run together intelligence activities with warfighting activities.

They open, for example, with the fact that the Chinese government appears to have intercepted confidential emails from the McCain and Obama campaigns and then write this:

American presidential campaigns are not the only targets. China is significantly boosting its capabilities in cyberspace as a way to gather intelligence and, in the event of war, hit the U.S. government in a weak spot, U.S. officials and experts say. Outgunned and outspent in terms of traditional military hardware, China apparently hopes that by concentrating on holes in the U.S. security architecture — its communications and spy satellites and its vast computer networks — it will collect intelligence that could help it counter the imbalance.

“In the event of war” both the United States and China are equipped with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. When the PRC already has the ability to destroy Los Angeles, worrying that in the future they may add the ability to read our email doesn’t make a ton of sense. By contrast, the ability to read email is a perfectly useful peacetime capability for a government that’s perhaps interested in what people’s emails say. But this is more or less on a par with longstanding signals intelligence as practiced by all majors countries—it’s not some kind of new superweapon that neutralizes our considerable military superiority.