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The New China Syndrome, as seen in Symantec-Huawei split

Mar 27, 20124 mins
CybercrimeData and Information Security

Not long ago, CSO Publisher Bob Bragdon wrote a column comparing China to Voldemort — he who must not be named, the evil incarnate of the Harry Potter universe. He complained that China has been handled with kid gloves and whispers (pussyfooting, he called it). Symantec seems to have reached a similar conclusion about China if its dissolved alliance with Huawei Technologies is any measure.

Of course, Symantec uses soft language when describing the move. When Symantec first announced it would sell its 49 percent stake in the venture to Huawei for $530 million, CEO Enrique Salem cooed that the project had "achieved the objectives we set four years ago" and would "exit the joint venture with a good return on our investment."

But an article in yesterday’s New York Times suggests otherwise. According to the article, which uses “two people briefed on the situation” as sources, Symantec ended its four-year partnership with Huawei Technologies (the venture was known as Huawei Symantec) because Symantec “feared the alliance with the Chinese company would prevent it from obtaining United States government classified information about cyberthreats.”

Huawei has always been viewed suspiciously in the U.S. government and private sector. Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei is a former officer in China's People's Liberation Army and it’s widely believed that the company retained close ties to the mainland, which is increasingly seen as a driving force behind cyber espionage against the U.S. government and widespread attacks in the public and private sectors.

“According to two people briefed on the deal, Symantec's decision was a pre-emptive political maneuver timed to coincide with the United States government's efforts to share more classified cyberthreat information with the private sector,” The New York Times report says. “People with knowledge of the venture, who would speak only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak, said Huawei had already laid off several workers in Huawei Symantec's Silicon Valley offices this month and planned to move its entire operation out of the United States, largely because of increased American government oversight.”

Salem paints this as exiting the partnership on a high note, with a good return on investment. But it seems more like the security vendor is cutting its losses.

The good news is that this goes to show how seriously the American public and private sectors are starting to take the threat coming from China. It seems possible that, at long last, we’re seeing the threat as Bragdon described it:

We talk about the “threat from Asia,” the attacks perpetrated by “a certain eastern country with a red flag,” network snooping by our “friends across the Pacific.” I swear, this is like reading a Harry Potter book with my daughter. “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” just attacked our networks. Let me be absolutely, crystal clear here. In this scenario, China is Voldemort. Clear enough?

Yeah, I think it’s getting pretty clear.

The question now is whether we have what it takes to fight back.

I have my doubts. America has allowed itself to become dependent on China. Almost everything we buy these days is made there. Heck, I once saw a keychain in my father’s warehouse that said “America is Number 1” across the backdrop of an American flag. I flipped the keychain over to find “Made In China” engraved across the back.

That was years ago. Today, a lot more of what we buy comes from China.

Meanwhile, China is — as of last year — the largest single holder of US government debt.

Those realities, plus the success Chinese hackers have had in penetrating U.S. government computer networks, does not bode well for us.

That doesn’t mean we’ve reached the point of no return. I remain an optimist, and I see the Symantec-Huawei split as a good example of the good guys waking up to the danger of the so-called sleeping giant.