Computer hacking allegedly perpetrated by Chinese military hackers led to indictments, but is a legal assault an effective strategy against Chinese cyber spying?

David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, said he remains hopeful about bringing Chinese hacking defendants to justice in Pittsburgh but believes the indictments have been successful in other ways. The cases defeated online anonymity by providing evidence that specifically tracked attacks and reversed decades of inaction on hard-to-prosecute international computer cases, he said.

Hickton said he does not know whether Chinese online spying has increased or abated in the past year.

“Even by just bringing indictments, we have served notice, we have laid out our evidence, and we have taken an official position that we are going to reverse the default position, which had existed for almost a decade, that we would allow crimes committed here and not charge them simply because it might be difficult to bring the perpetrators to justice,” Hickton told the Trib.

Online spying by the Chinese probably has increased, and the indictments had no practical legal effect, said Christopher Johnson, senior adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Legal action could have been better coordinated from the Justice Department with national security and diplomatic agencies, he said, but the cases were necessary.

“We had to do something, and the administration had to look like it was doing something,” Johnson said.

I remain unconvinced this move was anything other than a failed political play. Arresting Chinese military hackers without any solid evidence attributing specific attacks to these actual individuals is likely going to prove a waste of time, money, and effort.