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NSA cyber spying on China not a surprise, but it's not ho-hum, either (+video)

NSA chief says leaks about US cyber spying on China, and techniques for doing it, will impair intelligence-gathering. Others play that down, saying the more significant hit will be to relations with China and to US global work on behalf of a free and open Internet. 

NSA chief on internet spying
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International relations and leadership on global Internet policy, not US cyberespionage capability, are what will be compromised most as a result of revelations that the United States spies on computers used by civilians in Hong Kong and China

That's the bottom line of several cyberespionage experts asked to assess the damage from Edward Snowden's most recent disclosures about the secret activities of the US government's National Security Agency (NSA). Mr. Snowden, a former NSA contractor and a self-described whistleblower, outlined for a Hong Kong newspaper this week how the NSA hacks into the Internet's "backbone" routers – the data traffic cops of the information superhighway – to spy on nonmilitary computer users in China. 

Few seemed surprised by the allegations (probably not even the Chinese), but the NSA chief insisted that the leak caused "great harm" and will in fact impair the agency's cyberintelligence-gathering ability.

That's not, however, what tops the list of concerns for many experts on global spying. The long-term and more serious impact, they say, could be to weaken the US position in ongoing global talks on the future of the Internet, including free speech, taxation, privacy, and cybersecurity policies. The US hopes to gain international support for its stance that nation states should not spy on their citizens – a position that China, Russia, and some other nations oppose.

“The US wants to rally the rest of world behind it for a free and open Internet – and it could have pointed the finger at China and Russia,” says Jonathan Logan, an independent network security consultant in Europe who has written extensively on global cyberspying. “But this has fundamentally changed now because we now can see that the US doesn’t have clean hands on cyberespionage.”

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