Sunday, February 03, 2013

Eric Schmidt labels China a hacking menace

Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is once again in the news, this time with reports of an upcoming book due to be released in April.

The main headline, hinged upon by much of the media, is an apparent swipe at China for its growing use of cyber-espionage in order to gain advantage. The news of the book's release coincides with several reports including one this weekend of several US newspapers having been hacked by the Chinese [Telegraph / CNET].

The Wall Street Journal obtained the 'Exclusive' low down on the book, though details have been published by other outlets around the globe, except of course in China.

Quite what the effect such opinions expressed in the book will have on Google's stock price remains to be seen. Details of the book were only made public on Saturday after markets had shut and with Google shares closing at a record high of $775.60.

The cover of the book, displayed on Amazon, but not as yet on Google's Play Store, is not shy of publicizing the links between the writers of the book and the Internet giant.

"The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business" criticises China, describing the country as the world's "most sophisticated and prolific hacker" and say the country's state-backed cybercrime is a global "menace".

He and co-author Jared Cohen, a 31-year old former State Department employee who now runs Google Ideas, also assert that the US and other countries will be disadvantaged by such attacks. "The disparity between American and Chinese firms and their tactics will put both the government and the companies of the United States as a distinct disadvantage," because "the United States will not take the same path of digital corporate espionage, as its laws are much stricter (and better enforced) and because illicit competition violates the American sense of fair play."

The opinions laid out concerning China will perhaps be of little surprise. Google has clashed repeatedly with the Chinese authorities. In 2010 Beijing reacted furiously to the company's claims that Chinese authorities attempted to hack Gmail accounts and the company's systems. Since then many of Google's services have been blocked. Last year Google's entire collection of web services were blocked in China as the Communist Party appointed its first new leader in a decade.

A significant part of the book is said to concentrate on how China's government and state companies are willing to use cyber crime to give the increasingly powerful state 'an economic and political edge'. However it also hints that other countries and international companies may stoop to the same level in order to maintain a competitive edge.

The book appears to insinuate that some companies have already made key advantage from nefarious methods and takes a swipe at Huawei, a Chinese telecoms manufacturer which has faced trade blocks in the US for alleged ties to China's military. "Where Huawei gains market share, the influence and reach of China grow as well," Schmidt and Cohen write.

The authors also argue that the spread of technology could destabilise the authoritarian central government, with possible revolutionary consequences. "This mix of active citizens armed with technological devices and tight government control is exceptionally volatile," they write, saying this could lead to "some kind of revolution in the coming decades".

This is not the first time Schmidt has predicted political waves. In essay by Schmidt and colleague Jared Cohen in 2010 called "The Digital Disruption" it appeared to correctly predict the Arab Spring [Full article PDF].

"The advent and power of connection technologies -- tools that connect people to vast amounts of information and to one another -- will make the twenty-first century all about surprises. Governments will be caught off-guard when large numbers of their citizens, armed with virtually nothing but cell phones, take part in mini-rebellions that challenge their authority."

As for this new project, a summary on Google Play describes it as being "rich with anecdotes and insights from the highest levels of American government and industry" and "the first comprehensive look at the intersection of technology, geopolitics and world events."

Those topics go much further than the headline grabbing China-bashing comments. There are some warnings that could affect those in the 'free West' just as much. In particular there are musings on anonymity. "Some governments will consider it too risky to have thousands of anonymous, untraceable and unverified citizens — "hidden people"; they'll want to know who is associated with each online account, and will require verification at a state level, in order to exert control over the virtual world."

There are concerns expressed that states like Belarus, Eritrea, Zimbabwe and North Korea could gather together and create "an autocratic cyber union, where censorship and monitoring strategies and technologies could be shared."

Something that few will be little surprised about is Schmidt and Cohan's 'revelation' that "we're already living in an age of state-led cyber war, even if most of us aren't aware of it."

But what of the media who report, or not on such matters? According to these two authors, there will still be a place for 'quality' journalism. "The elite will probably rely more on established news organizations simply because of the massive swell of low-grade reporting and information in the system."

The "massive swell of low-grade reporting and information" is perhaps a swipe at the likes of Twitter, though could apply equally well to blogs! Regards the microblogging service, the pair say, "Twitter can no more produce analysis than a monkey can type out a work of Shakespeare." [This is a reference to the so-called Infinite Monkey Theorum which asserts that such a probability be so low as to be almost be zero.]

The book will be a great deal more than the 140 characters allowed in a single tweet, and cost a great deal more. Published on 25th April it can be pre-ordered as an eBook for £10.99 on Kindle or Google Books. The hardback edition is priced at £25, though Amazon are already offering it at a discounted £16. Interestingly is selling both the physical copy and the Kindle version at almost the same price point with the digital copy selling at $17.70 while the hardback retails at $16.39. It seems there may be a price war on as well as a cyberwar [BBC / Sky News / Telegraph / Guardian / Independent / Daily Mail / WSJ / San Francisco Chronicle / TechCrunch]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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