Is China that scary?

The nytimes published another article about Aaron Swartz: How M.I.T. Ensnared a Hacker, Bucking a Freewheeling Culture

This article is generally good, putting Swartz’s behavior in the right context, especially the “hacker” context of MIT.

But it included a couple of, to my reading, very odd references to “China”:

According to the timeline, the tech team detected brief activity from China on the netbook — something that occurs all the time but still represents potential trouble.

Well, yeah, I mean, almost anything unusual “represents potential trouble”, emphasis on the ‘potential’ — that sentence means almost nothing.

(Although, amusingly, they also admit that there’s actually nothing unusual or unexpected about network activity from China, which actually happens “all the time” they say. But anyhow. Yes, something you don’t understanding could “potentially” represent unspecified “trouble” of some sort,  that is certainly vague enough to be undeniably so.)

But by throwing in an essentially non-sequitor reference to China,  they’re, of course,  counting on it being read as “Well, of course, if there’s activity from China, then we need to treat it as terribly serious security threat. I mean, China people!”

Michael Sussmann, a Washington lawyer and a former federal prosecutor of computer crime, said that M.I.T. was the victim and that, without more information, it had to assume any hackers were “the Chinese, even though it’s a 16-year-old with acne.”

Wait, what? What if it’s a 16-year-old with acne who speaks Chinese and lives in China? What the heck are they talking about, why is “assume the hackers are Chinese” so scary?

In fact, none of us would be surprised if there were efforts to scrape scholarly articles from JStor originating in China.

Our anecdotal observations are that indeed efforts to pirate scholarly articles often originate in China, Russia, and other parts of the developing world. The most obvious and sensible explanation for this would be that these are places with a lot of scholars and researchers who lack the money to pay for the scholarly content they need for their scholarship and research. I’m not sure why this is any more scary or dangerous than someone pirating scholarly content in Des Moines though, it’s hardly a national security issue that someone might read academic research without paying for it in China.

I don’t think I had realized the level of “Chinese hacker hysteria” we’ve achieved, where apparently all you need to do is drop in a non-sequitor “But it might have been from China”, and you’ve succesfully messaged “And therefore a national security issue, becuase the Chinese are scary and out to get us.”  The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

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