Few eyebrows were arched when Google announced that the Gmail accounts of foreign officials and political dissidents were hacked by a source somewhere deep inside China. Or that Chinese-based cyberattacks topped an electronic break-in into the systems of sensitive US defence contractors. While there is no major country in world that does not attempt to pry open the electronic communications of other nations as part of the normal game of espionage, there are two reasons why China tends to raise greater concern than most.
One is the sheer size and intensity of China-origin cyberattacks. These attacks do not so much as pry into systems as try and crush them with enormous tidal waves of bytes. There is no serious attempt at anonymity or discretion. Most analysts argue that Beijing wants its cyberwar capabilities to be known and respected. This is partly because China sees such warfighting ability as an asymmetric counter to the conventional and technological superiority it still faces in military rivals like the US. But no other country seems to feel the need to show its e-hand so prominently. The other, and more sinister, is how China uses electronic measures to intimidate, track and spy on political opponents. These include not only overseas groups like Tibetan exiles but also domestic dissidents, who range from artists to microbloggers. Beijing sees its cyber capacities as an instrument of domestic repression as well as a standard military capability. The argument will be made that, again, all developed nations do so. This is a crude generalisation. Democratic nations provide far more political space to their civil societies. Indians would find many of the impositions imposed by Beijing on its people the past few months — including limits on the sale of jasmine flowers because of their link to the recent popular Arab uprisings — baffling. In addition, cybersnooping is determined by a due process in most liberal societies and not by the fiat of a one-party dictatorship.
But as public debate moves increasingly into the electronic sphere, there is a greater cause for liberal societies to seek to defend it from unfriendly intrusions. The US is to be applauded for committing itself to defending internet and electronic freedom — even if security and commercial interests may have partly motivated this move. India should also take a closer look at this issue by looking, first, at how it is functioning at home. Many of the present anti-terrorism proposals such as a national security grid or the expansion of phone-tapping authority are being left to the decision of a few bureaucrats and ministers. At the very least, some sort of judicial oversight, and possibly even parliamentary oversight, is needed. While there are reasons for India to admire what China has done economically, this should not apply to the realm of electronic freedom.