Skip to main content

Cybercrime or espionage? The rules just changed

By Dave Weinstein
updated 9:51 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
  • Dave Weinstein says the recent cyber-arrests and Chinese indictments signal a new era
  • Federal law enforcement agencies and governments have redefined what crosses the line
  • The Blackshades raid spanned 19 countries and required robust global information sharing

Editor's note: Cybersecurity expert Dave Weinstein spent the last three years in the Pentagon's U.S. Cyber Command. You can follow him on Twitter ‪@djweinstein23. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- It's been a busy few days in the world of cybercrime.

Late last week, we learned that cooperation between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and overseas police agencies led to the dissection of the amorphous network behind Blackshades -- the tool that allows hackers to remotely access an unwitting user's computer to steal sensitive files, log passwords, and capture webcam images.

Law enforcement authorities from the U.S. to Germany to the Netherlands appeared on the doorsteps of suspected hackers with links to the malicious software, eventually arresting 90 people and gathering hoards of evidence along the way.

Then, on Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder released an indictment for five Chinese nationals on charges of corporate cybertheft. In a statement, FBI Director James B. Comey accused the Chinese government of committing "cyber espionage to obtain economic advantage for its state-owned industries."

Dave Weinstein
Dave Weinstein

The 31-count cybertheft indictment is the first of its kind to level penalties on a state actor -- in this case five members of the People's Liberation Army -- for allegedly pilfering intellectual property from six U.S. companies. Predictably, China's Foreign Ministry was quick to rebuke the charges as "fabricated" and a violation "of basic norms of international relations." As if it had been pre-written, the scripted statement then touted China's record as a "staunch defender of cybersecurity."

Practically speaking, the arrest of 90 semi-amateur hackers is hardly a decisive blow to global cybercrime and the Justice Department's indictment is little more than a legal show of force. After all, the Blackshades network pales in comparison to other high-dealing cybercrime rings and China has already dismissed the allegations as "fictitious and absurd," so don't expect extradition proceedings anytime soon.

But the Blackshades arrests and the DOJ allegations against China, although modest, are hardly trivial. The indictment marks the most flagrant expression of the United States' growing intolerance for corporate cybertheft to date.

It also communicates to China and the rest of the world the degree to which such behavior directly threatens America's interests, perhaps even in a manner commensurate with more conventional threats like terrorism and WMD proliferation.

More than signaling intolerance for cybercrime, both cases have revealed domestic and foreign law enforcement's steady maturation in this space. The international Blackshades raid, which spanned 19 countries, required robust information sharing channels and cross-border operational coordination.

Miss Teen USA victim: 'I was in shock'
Eric Holder: Chinese military hacked us
Spurlock: 'The paranoia is justified'

On the surface, such partnerships seem routine given that the U.S. regularly partners with foreign law enforcement on drug, terrorism, and financial crimes. But unlike other criminal disciplines, there are no universally-recognized charters governing international norms for cybercrime, and most countries' justice systems are at drastically different stages of development in this nascent legal field.

The Feds and their international counterparts deserve a solid pat on the back for this one, but the progress will quickly retreat if the events of the past week don't trigger a more enduring dialogue on international norms for cybercrime.

Now more than ever, the line in the sand is clear. On one side is traditional espionage, a practice governed by hundreds of years of international norms that has recently spilled over from sea, air and land into cyberspace. It is a basic function of intelligence.

On the other side, is corporate cybertheft, a new phenomenon in which the anonymity of cyberspace affords the thief an enormous advantage over the victim -- especially when the thief is a government and the victim is a business.

Quite simply, corporate cybertheft crosses the line because, in today's ultra-competitive geopolitical landscape, it threatens the delicate balance of power between states. Yes, states spy in cyberspace to protect themselves from threats. But the goal of corporate cybertheft is to fundamentally revise the balance of power -- and self-respecting nations simply can't tolerate such behavior.

In unprecedented fashion, the faces of five officers from the previously disclosed 61398 Unit of the Chinese People's Liberation Army now appear on a "Wanted by the FBI" poster, a striking suggestion that perhaps prosecuting cybercrime shouldn't differ all that much from prosecuting other crimes.

Not too long ago, the overt portrayal of individuals otherwise known only by their virtual aliases would have been met by fierce opposition from those fearing diplomatic retribution. Despite China's rhetoric and the summoning of the American Ambassador to China Max Baucus Monday night, the U.S. need not fear retribution.

But now that we've crossed the Rubicon with this indictment, it's apparent that dealing with cybercrime is more than just a "name and shame" game.

If, instead, the five Chinese officers marched into Westinghouse's headquarters, pulled out a gun and stole next year's product development plans, nobody would debate whether or not they crossed the line.

Cyberspace doesn't afford criminals any more latitude than the physical world, but it does increase the burden of proof on the accusing party -- so hopefully Attorney General Eric Holder did his homework.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on

Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?