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In the traditional modes of warfare and intelligence, espionage was an exclusive domain of spies working covertly to gain access to an enemy’s sensitive information. However, greater leaps in technology over the years have raised the significance of cyber domain for intelligence, paving the way for cyber espionage. Cyber espionage could be deemed as a covert attempt by government actors, individuals or non-state actors to gain access to unauthorised or sensitive information of another foreign state, its associations, corporations etc. through the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), aimed at gaining economic, political, or military advantage. Cyberespionage is quite widespread and has become a significant concern globally.

The latest emerging technologies encompass colossal capability to infiltrate cryptographic protocols, hence, decrypting encrypted, sensitive data at a faster rate, often at a much lower cost and with resources that are more easily accessible than traditional espionage. Cryptographic tools were deployed heavily by Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) that were instrumental for the Allied victory during World War II. Envisaged as an equivalent to GCHQ, the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) was established in 1952 and both collaborated extensively during the Cold War. Documents leaked in 2013 by Edward J. Snowden, a former NSA contractor, revealed that the NSA was able to decrypt large amounts of unauthorised and sensitive data globally by acquiring keys or gaining access through back doors. Founded in 1983, China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) is primarily responsible for intelligence and counterintelligence. The MSS regularly warns the Chinese population of the persistent threat posed by foreign espionage.

Countries identified as ‘cryptographic superpowers’ are those that have significantly advanced their technological capabilities, particularly in the areas of supercomputing and quantum computing. These advances give them a substantial edge in both cybersecurity and cyberespionage. In fact, there is widespread speculation that these systems will soon be able to break encryption across almost all systems over the internet; and efforts are underway to build cyber defences as well as quantum-resistant protocols.

Given their cryptographic and geopolitical significance, supercomputers are one of the major determinants of Sino-US technological competition. According to the most recent data available, China is at the forefront globally with 173 supercomputers, while the US follows with 128 machines. These technological advancements provide these nations with a considerable advantage in cyber operations. They are better equipped to conduct advanced persistent threats (APTs), which are sophisticated, long-term cyberespionage or cyber warfare campaigns typically attributed to state actors. Notably, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been elevating tech-oriented individuals to higher echelons of power, e.g. of the 11 newly inducted members of the Politburo Committee in 2022, 5 were from a science and technology background. This integration suggests a deliberate approach to harnessing their technological capabilities not only for national security and global competitiveness but also in shaping state policy decisions.

Apart from advanced machines, the digital terrain of cyber espionage is characterised by a nexus between intelligence agencies and big tech corporations. Alfred McCoy, in his book ‘In the Shadows of the American Century,’ disclosed that the NSA possesses one of the largest home field advantage by virtue of its linkages with prominent American big tech corporations. Revelations surrounding the Prism Program showed how the NSA colluded with companies like Microsoft, Google and Facebook for years and gained access to their servers. The traditional military-industrial complex in the US is undergoing a paradigm shift as a new political economy is on the horizon, characterised by Silicon Valley giants receiving lucrative contracts from the Pentagon. Under this shift, Chinese tech giants have repeatedly been accused by the US of colluding with Beijing in cyber espionage. In this regard, the American noose of scrutiny has been tightening around Huawei and TikTok. The House of Representatives recently passed a bill, compelling TikTok’s developer ByteDance to disassociate from TikTok or face ban. The US deems espionage, technological growth and military modernisation as essential features of the evolving Chinese military-industrial complex.

The ethos of privacy, inclusivity and fairness have always been cherished ideals in democratic societies. The mounting power of big tech could compromise these ideals by establishing monopolies and exceeding their corporate boundaries. On the other hand, states now regard big tech corporations as a source of their power and prestige because the latter are at the forefront of critical innovations in the digital age, besides enabling governments to access international markets. Both the US and China are engaged in a Tech Cold War to secure relative gains against each other where the tech giants of both countries seem to be tools as well as victims of a geopolitical zero-sum game.

As nations continue to enhance their cryptographic capabilities, the landscape of global cybersecurity is becoming increasingly complex. This raises critical questions about the balance between democratic norms, security and privacy issues, and whether any data can truly remain secret in an age dominated by digital surveillance and advanced cyber operations.

Shah Muhammad is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS) in Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at cass.thinkers@casstt.com.

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