San Francisco’s Moscone Center, site of the RSA Conference, photographed earlier this year.
Photo: AP

Leading them around practically by the tie, neatly dressed NSA handlers guided the American spy agency’s most powerful leaders through labyrinthine crowds in San Francisco’s Moscone Center last week at the annual RSA Conference. With 50,000 attendees, RSA is the biggest cybersecurity conference in the world, known for attracting industry start-ups, giant corporations, and top government officials. This year, American spies and security officials were on a mission to sound the alarm on what they say is their top priority: The Chinese hacking threat.

As American officials did their rounds, a cohort of Chinese tech companies sold their services to American and European businesspeople desperate for a way into the biggest market on earth despite cataclysmic language from the host country’s government.

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“I kind of look at Russia as the hurricane, coming in fast and hard,” Rob Joyce, NSA’s senior cybersecurity adviser and former White House cybersecurity coordinator, told a gaggle of press. “China is climate change, the effects are long, slow, pervasive.”

It’s a catchy line tailor-made to be instantly tweeted out, as several of the few dozen reporters in attendance did. This sentiment, repeated dozens of times by U.S. officials in less shareable soundbites over the last month, is meant for a worldwide audience including both European allies and Chinese adversaries. The RSA cybersecurity conference, like the Mobile World Conference in Spain just a week prior, offered the rare sight of all of these groups in close personal proximity at a moment of rising tensions.

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Though the American public conversation around hacking and national security has been hyper-focused on Russia following the system shock of the 2016 U.S. elections, inside the American national security establishment, the biggest fears surround China. “Russia’s trying to disrupt the system,” Chris Krebs, the lead cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security, told a big audience at RSA. But “China is trying to manipulate the system to its ultimate long-term advantage.”

The recent focus of the U.S. government’s public action against China has been Huawei, the Chinese hardware manufacturer which did $92.5 billion in revenue last year. Huawei is now suing the U.S. over a federal ban on government contracts with the firm due to purported national security threats stemming from the company’s close relationship to the Chinese government, a charge the company strongly denies.

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The U.S. government’s renewed offensive against Huawei comes just as the company is driving to deliver 5G infrastructure around the world. A global structure of switches, routers, and a mountain of code, 5G networks are poised to power the next generation of connected technology, smart cities, self-driving cars, and a range of unrealized tech expected to have a tremendous human impact—not to mention that it’s a gigantic economic opportunity. The U.S. is concerned that Huawei-built infrastructure will give China an intelligence, economic, and even military advantage for decades to come. The threat, U.S. officials say, is that whoever builds that network will control the galaxy of data on it and open it up to potential spying or sabotage.

Speaking as much to U.S. critics as he was to a global audience, Huawei deputy chairman Guo Ping argued recently against U.S. claims that vague Chinese laws and connections to the Chinese government make Huawei a risk, saying that “the US Congress has repeatedly failed to produce any evidence to support its restrictions on Huawei products.” (Huawei is currently under indictment in the United States on multiple criminal counts, though, there’s been no concrete evidence offered to support the claim that Huawei hardware could lead to espionage.)

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The climate of fear and suspicion in America stems from two decades of unprecedented cyberespionage between the two powers. The U.S. accuses China of hacking into American companies, stealing intellectual property and using it as a competitive advantage. Ten years ago, Chinese hackers famously spied on Google’s sensitive internal networks. Beginning ten years before that, suspected Chinese hackers infiltrated the telecommunications firm Nortel and precipitated a collapse that ultimately left North America without any competitor to Huawei on telecommunications hardware. In just the past few months, the Justice Department has indicted a dozen suspected Chinese hackers for allegedly stealing U.S. intellectual property. In a report delivered this week, the Navy said it was “under cyber siege” from China.

Huawei didn’t attend RSA, but Alibaba, another Chinese tech titan and one of the biggest companies on earth, had big ads, a huge booth, and plenty of staff on hand at RSA, selling the Alibaba Cloud, a booming business growing 84 percent year over year with revenue hitting $699 million in the fourth quarter of 2018. The booth attracted hordes of prospective western customers.

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A direct competitor to Western tech giants like Amazon, Alibaba holds a strong lead in the cloud business across East Asia including running 40 percent of cloud infrastructure in China, according to Yuriy Yuzifovich, the head of security innovation labs at the company.

“It definitely goes beyond Huawei,” said Paul Triolo, head of global technology studies at the Eurasia Group consultancy. “There’s broad concern from the U.S. about Chinese tech companies being bigger players globally. Alibaba is making a big push. They have that trifecta of cloud, e-commerce, and payments which is potent.”

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Alibaba, like every other Chinese company Gizmodo approached at RSA, refused to speak on the record about the impact of tension between Washington and Beijing.

From the Department of Homeland Security’s show booth, there was a direct line of sight to the Chinese cohort flown in from Beijing, including cybersecurity companies like Suninfo, Vackbot, and 360.

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Each of the Chinese companies took in waves of attention from Westerners busy making deals. None seemed to be seriously heeding the concerns of American officials, of whom, perhaps FBI Director Christopher Wray came off the most panicked.

“There is nothing like it,” He told an audience of thousands that occasionally broke into applause. “I’m not somebody who is prone to hyperbole, but of all the things that surprised me when I came back into this world, the thing that most shocked me was the breadth, the depth, the scale of the Chinese counterintelligence threat.”

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