President Ronald Reagan, second right, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, second left, during a signing ceremony for the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in the White House East Room on Dec. 8, 1987. (BARRY THUMMA/AP)

Is the U.S. now engaging in a similar game of cat-and-mouse with the Chinese, this time played out on the periphery of the Internet?

After all, The Chinese have successfully hacked into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, using a complex operation that involved more than 300 points of attack. Spies, albeit online, and stolen documents, while digital, are signals of a new era of cyberwarfare that is strangely reminiscent of the old Cold War.

The hacking of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (an operation that apparently was shut down in May 2010) is merely one in a series of known infiltrations. The Chinese have also been linked to a hacking effort that resulted in the compromising of Pentagon contractors’ records, and accused of hacking into the computer systems of more than 760 corporations large and small. This goes beyond rogue, black-hat hackers in Beijing. This is a long-term strategy orchestrated by a state power. The headline of a Dec. 14 piece by Bloomberg reporters Michael Riley and John Walcott labeled it a “Cyber Cold War,” while cybersecurity expert Richard Clarke, quoted in the piece, referred to Chinese actions as “using a vacuum cleaner to suck data out in terabytes and petabytes” from corporations in the West and in the East.

Yet, just as the U.S. was forced to overlook occasional Soviet intrusions into its airspace and sea territory during the Cold War, it is now being forced to overlook intrusions into the inner workings of the Internet. The Chinese are so central to the structure and functioning of the global economy that the U.S. and other countries are forced to turn a blind eye to these routine intrusions, while presumably ramping up their own black hat operations against the Chinese and out of the average American’s sight.

And this “Cyber Cold War” is not just between the Chinese and the Americans. In the Arab world earlier this year, protesters and governments engaged in an elaborate game of Internet intelligence and counter-intelligence, with activists even resorting to spy names and code words in order to arrange clandestine meetings and rallies, fearful of reprisals from autocratic regimes. This was followed, in short order, by attempts to shut down the Internet entirely and monitor activity on Skype accounts.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

The analog Cold War is over, but the digital Cold War has quietly slipped in to take its place. The legendary, fictional heroes of the spy game, such as John le Carré’s George Smiley (back on the big screen after a long absence), have been replaced by twenty-something technophiles, who engage in routine intrusion using viruses and malware — much the same way they might play an online video game. In an era where spy drones in the Middle East are piloted by young servicemembers sitting in the Nevada desert, this new Cold War is for the young generation that grew up playing video games and using Twitter to self-organize events like flashmobs. The rules of the spy game have changed, but do we fully understand these new rules of engagement for cyberwarfare and where they might lead us?

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