DHS deputy to meet with Chinese officials over hacking

Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas this week will meet with senior Chinese officials to discuss the implementation of a series of cybersecurity agreements reached during President Xi Jinping’s state visit in September.

The meetings, to take place in Beijing, are part of preparations for the first ministerial-level dialogue on cybersecurity between the U.S. and China, scheduled for Dec. 1 and 2 in Washington, D.C.

The December meetings will be the two countries’ first official channel on cybersecurity since China quit a working group over last year’s indictment of five members of the Chinese military who were accused of hacking the United States.

In September, President Obama and Xi agreed that neither the U.S. nor the Chinese government will “conduct or knowingly support cyber theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage,” Obama said during a joint press conference.

The two nations also pledged to assist one another in the investigation and prosecution of cybercrimes.

The leaders also indicated that the two countries would work together with other nations to develop “rules of the road” for appropriate conduct in cyberspace.

Policy experts say the anti-hacking agreement is historic because it marks the first time that China has drawn a public distinction between hacking for corporate profit and hacking for traditional intelligence-gathering purposes.

The United States has tried to draw a line in the sand, where the latter is acceptable but the former is not.

Since the agreement, China’s behavior in cyberspace has been under intense scrutiny from intelligence officials and skeptical lawmakers anxious to know whether China will uphold its end of the bargain.

Reports have been mixed. Some security firms say that while they have seen hacks continue to originate in Beijing, it might take some time for China to dismantle its espionage apparatus and such activity should not be considered a failure of the agreement.

Security firm FireEye said it is “premature to conclude that activity during this short time frame constitutes economic espionage.”

Reports also indicate that the Chinese government quietly arrested several hackers at the request of the U.S. government days before the state visit.

The hackers were part of a list drawn up by administration officials that identified cyber thieves who stole trade secrets from U.S. firms to pass along to Chinese competitors.

Officials are now waiting to see whether the Chinese government will go forward with prosecutions, or whether the arrests will be nothing more than an empty gesture intended to defuse tensions with the United States in advance of the state visit.

Mayorkas’s meetings are set for Nov. 12 and 13, according to an agency statement. He will also discuss other homeland security-related issues, including counterterrorism, combating transnational crime and Coast Guard conduct at sea.