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World

Sieren's China: Data and glass houses

The US and China are always going to spy on each other. A deal would not make any difference, says DW's Frank Sieren.

Every child knows that countries spy on each other - at least after watching "Mission Impossible". The first one came out in 1996. Today, reality is becoming more and more like fiction.

Ill-gotten personnel files

The most recent conflict between the US and China comes across like a screenplay: Chinese hackers steal US personnel records and data from the State Department, and the CIA decides to withdraw its cyber spies from China before they can be exposed. Since their names are not on the personnel list of embassy workers, all Beijing has to do is put two and two together.

Between March 2014 and April 2015, the computers of the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) were hacked into and the personal data of an estimated 18 million employees was exposed. Washington confirmed this in summer.

US President Barack Obama has complained that Beijing is spying on the well-behaved Americans to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. US politicians, especially those from the opposition, have called for retribution for China's cyber activities.

Frank Sieren Kolumnist Handelsblatt Bestseller Autor China

DW's Frank Sieren

The Internet was one of the major themes that the two presidents discussed when they met the week before last.

Obama called on Xi to clearly position himself against cyber-spying but did not dare express himself in stronger tones.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was not at all pleased to have to withdraw his people. Who's supposed to do the work in Beijing now? The spy work? That is, information theft?

It has quickly become clear that Clapper's outlook is not compatible with the political PR strategy of the US government. He recently told a committee: “We, too, practice cyber espionage," adding "We're not bad at it.” He then suggested that it would be unwise to punish other countries for something that the US also does. “I think it's a good idea to at least think about the old saw about people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.”

Spying despite a deal

This did not meet with enthusiasm from US hardliners. Senator John McCain asked whether it was now possible for others to steal secrets with impunity because the US was in a glass house. He is right. Whatever deal Obama and Xi do come to, cyber spies in Beijing and Washington will continue to do everything to dig into each other's innermost secrets.

That's why the current world power and the ascending world power have not even tried to find agreement on this subject. For now, they've decided that such a deal might address attacks on power stations, hospitals, cell phone networks and banks.

DW correspondent Frank Sieren has been living in Beijing for the last 20 years.

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