Governments have always kept secrets. Governments have always spied. But the dramatic focus on technological advances in cyber espionage and hacking is shifting the battle lines of the 21st century.
Cyber attacks have now joined the traditional weapons of government as exploiting gaps in foreign networks, collecting zero-day vulnerabilities and installing network surveillance are just some of the tactics now used by nations with the ability to do so.
Nowhere is this escalation in the cyber arena being played out more openly than between the US and China.
Earlier this year a secret National Security Agency (NSA) document uncovered earlier this year revealed more than 600 successful attacks on US corporate and government networks over a five-year period had come from China.
As this cyber arms race heats up security experts and researchers are now worried a 'breaking point' could fast be approaching as the two nations show no signs of backing down.
A relationship characterised by mistrust
Calum Jeffray, research fellow of national security and resilience at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said that there has always been a frosty relationship between China and the US when it comes to the web.
"US and Chinese interests are often fundamentally opposed when it comes to issues of internet governance. The US approach favours openness and freedom of information, whereas China favours more state control over information in cyber space," he told V3.
"However, I think it's important to note that, thus far, China and the US have restricted their activities to espionage, particularly economic espionage, rather than other forms of more hostile attack."
He noted, though, that the cyber relationships between the nations has now "deteriorated", and authorities are now engaged in tit-for-tat tactics in response to continued allegations of cyber espionage.
"A key moment was the announcement by US attorney general Eric Holder in May 2014 of hacking charges against five Chinese nationals, the first against known state actors for infiltrating US commercial targets by cyber means," said Jeffray.
"In response, Beijing suspended a Sino-US working group on cyber security and began a campaign against US technology companies operating in China."
China has always denied any such activities but that changed this year after the publication of an updated Science of Military Strategy that acknowledged China's cyber capabilities for the first time.
The document contains the military strategy of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which admits that the government is highly motivated in the embracing of cyber espionage and network security.
It reveals that missile defences, space systems, precision strike weapons and, crucially, cyber warfare, are officially on the agenda of the Chinese military.
"The PLA sees the US as China's primary strategic adversary. It believes the US is actively trying to limit China's development and restrict its freedom of action in the international system by using a broad combination of cultural, economic, diplomatic and military pressure," the document states.
A three-pronged approach
China splits its cyber operations into three sections: the PLA's 'specialised military network warfare forces'; the PLA's authorised forces such as the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Public Security; and so-called non-governmental force of hackers who don't officially work for the government but can be called into action when needed.
It is this third category that is of concern to many rival nations given some of the targets the hackers hit, as Jen Weedon, manager of threat intelligence and strategic analysis at FireEye, explained to V3.
"There is a spectrum of state sponsorship. There is certainly activity that we see that appears to be very state directed and then there's activity we see and research we have done on specific actors that indicates there are also contractors doing this activity, and everything in between," she said.
"We have seen some elements of cyber tools, logistics and supply chains. So for example we have seen certain pieces of malware or backdoors that appear to be shared among a lot of different groups and maybe getting it from a single source so there's clearly quite a large infrastructure behind this behaviour."
Interestingly, though, Sean Sullivan, security advisor at F-Secure, argues that while these hacking groups often seem to work in the interests of China there's no guarantee this will last indefinitely.
"Much of Chinese hacking is done by actors sympathetic to China. Not all of it is directed by the state. Why don't Chinese hackers target China? In the past, I've heard it explained this way: the economy is too strong. Double-digit growth keeps people happy and patriotic," he told V3.
"But what happens when China's economy needs to slow down [as it is now]? As things slow down and the new normal becomes less growth, will China-based hackers turn inward? Losing control of this talent is something that the Chinese government must be very concerned about."
The blurry line of the law
While this may change the nature of the threat to the US, the west and its businesses, it will not stop the threat posted by the fact Chinese hackers spy on companies and steal intelligence and intellectual property.
Sullivan notes that this is key difference in how China acts in the cyber arena, when compared to the US.
"When the US spies, it does so to level the playing field. In a well-known example, the US spied on Airbus to prevent bribes in the Middle East. But, according to the US, no intellectual property was transferred from Airbus to Boeing. China doesn't see the distinction," he said.
Sullivan told V3 that this is a clear example of how the usual rules and treaties that apply to armed conflicts and intelligence have not been extended to the internet.
"There aren't really any international agreements governing 'peace time' intelligence gathering," he said.
"Cyber technologies have definitely changed the nature of intelligence gathering. And perhaps it's time to write some new treaties of what's acceptable and what's not."
A red line?
The need for such treaties was underlined in a big way earlier this year after the recent breach at the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM), perhaps the most high-profile case of cyber espionage in recent times.
The OPM revealed on 9 July that over 21.5 million federal records had been stolen, including Social Security numbers, education history, employment history, and health, criminal and financial background of federal employees.
FBI director James Comey said in a US Senate appearance that even his information was likely to have been compromised, showing the full scope of the breach.
Unsurprisingly China is believed to have carried out the hack, although it was not publically accused of doing so.
Nonetheless Ewan Lawson, senior research fellow for military influence at RUSI, explained that the sheer scale of the attack led to serious debate in the US about how to deal with China and the growing cyber crises.
"There are those who argue that it is time to draw a 'red line' about what is acceptable, whilst others are cautious about the extent to which this might constrain the US' own activities," he told V3.
"There is a sense that the scale and frequency of attacks apparently emanating from China has reached a level where, even if the purpose is ‘traditional espionage', it is no longer acceptable and requires a response."
However, China has denied any involvement in the hack, and was able to make its own dig at the US about state spying.
"Maybe it is better to clarify one's own matters before rushing to make unfounded accusations against others, so as to make oneself sound more convincing," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang at the time.
Of course, Lu is referring to the disclosures made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden in 2013.
The whistleblower released a trove of classified documents detailing mass surveillance programmes run by the US and UK governments.
Lawson agreed that the Snowden disclosure changed how the US is perceived around the world and makes it hard for the US to act with moral superiority.
"Much of the American moral high ground was lost through Snowden when the material demonstrated the extent to which the NSA was collecting huge amounts of data," he told V3.
Cyber: a sensitive subject
Despite all this, there remains a veneer of civility between China and the west. Earlier in August UK foreign secretary Phillip Hammond was in Beijing on a two-day diplomatic visit to meet Chinese president Xi Jinping and discuss trade, the economy and security.
Hammond said in a speech at Peking University in the capital that one of the aims of the relationship between the UK and China is to "secure cyber space against the lawlessness which undermines investment confidence".
In a less publicised event during this visit, a private meeting was held between the foreign secretary and minister Lu Wei of the Chinese State Internet Information Office to specifically discuss cyber security.
Despite numerous enquiries, the UK government told V3 that the meeting was conducted in private and that its content, agenda and minutes could not be disclosed. A Chinese state delegation plans to make a visit to the UK this October.
This comes despite evidence that Chinese hackers, state sponsored or otherwise, have an interest in UK intelligence. In 2007, alleged PLA hackers attacked the computer networks of the Foreign Office, the same department they are now shaking hands with in public.
It is clear that cyber security is an important topic of conversation in the upper echelons of power but it is equally clear these tensions are always just under the surface.
For FireEye's Weedon the situation underlines how unpredictable the evolving cyber arena is between governments, but she notes that however it plays between China and the US will have an impact on the rest of the world.
"The US and China relationship is playing out on the global stage, but I think whatever happens will have global implications for how other countries behave and respond to cyber activity," she said.
While it is hard to know what will happen next in a post-Snowden landscape we do at least know the reason why the US and Chinese governments clash so frequently over cyber security: both nations are simply two sides of the same coin.
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