A Question for 60 Minutes: Why Would China Want to Destroy the Global Economy?

The CBS program implies that Asia's biggest country has the intention and ability to damage every computer on earth.
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Chinese workers inside a Shenyang factory that exports cameras. (Reuters)

On Sunday, 60 Minutes aired a story about the National Security Agency. It focused in part on the role the NSA plays trying to thwart cyber attacks against the United States. It's good that America has smart people focused on our cyber-vulnerabilities. Foreign adversaries certainly have an incentive to exploit some of them, just as the U.S. and Israel used Stuxnet to exploit vulnerabilities in Iran's cyber-security. 

What confounds me is the plot that 60 Minutes presented as one that the NSA has thwarted. In their telling, the agency may well have saved the global financial system from a viable Chinese attempt to destroy every computer in the world! 

The transcript shows how 60 Minutes presented this part of its story:

John Miller: Could a foreign country tomorrow topple our financial system?

Gen. Keith Alexander: I believe that a foreign nation could impact and destroy major portions of our financial system, yes.

John Miller: How much of it could we stop?

Gen. Keith Alexander: Well, right now it would be difficult to stop it because our ability to see it is limited.

One they did see coming was called the BIOS Plot. It could have been catastrophic for the United States. While the NSA would not name the country behind it, cyber security experts briefed on the operation told us it was China. Debora Plunkett directs cyber defense for the NSA and for the first time, discusses the agency’s role in discovering the plot.

Debora Plunkett: One of our analysts actually saw that the nation state had the intention to develop and to deliver, to actually use this capability—to destroy computers.

John Miller: To destroy computers.

Debora Plunkett: To destroy computers. So the BIOS is a basic input, output system. It's, like, the foundational component firmware of a computer. You start your computer up. The BIOS kicks in. It activates hardware. It activates the operating system. It turns on the computer.

This is the BIOS system which starts most computers. The attack would have been disguised as a request for a software update. If the user agreed, the virus would’ve infected the computer.

John Miller: So, this basically would have gone into the system that starts up the computer, runs the systems, tells it what to do.

Debora Plunkett: That's right.

John Miller: —and basically turned it into a cinderblock.

Debora Plunkett: A brick.

John Miller: And after that, there wouldn't be much you could do with that computer.

Debora Plunkett: That's right. Think about the impact of that across the entire globe. It could literally take down the U.S. economy.

John Miller: I don't mean to be flip about this. But it has a kind of a little Dr. Evil quality—to it that, "I'm going to develop a program that can destroy every computer in the world." It sounds almost unbelievable.

Debora Plunkett: Don't be fooled. There are absolutely nation states who have the capability and the intentions to do just that.

John Miller: And based on what you learned here at NSA. Would it have worked?

Debora Plunkett: We believe it would have. Yes.

There's a lot of sly hedging in there, but the impression 60 Minutes leaves its viewers with is unmistakable: that China has the capability and intention to destroy every computer in the world, but the NSA stopped its dastardly plot, averting the possible collapse of the United States economy, or perhaps the world economy. 

But wait just a minute. 

Why would China want to bring about global economic collapse?

As Marcy Wheeler notes:

If that happened, it’d mean a goodly percentage of China’s 1.3 billion people would go hungry, which would lead to unbelievable chaos in China, which would mean the collapse of the state in China, the one thing the Chinese elite want to prevent more than anything. But the NSA wants us to believe that this was actually going to happen. That China was effectively going to set off a global suicide bomb. Strap on the economy in a cyber-suicide vest and… KABOOOOOOOM! And the NSA heroically thwarted that attack. That’s what they want us to believe and some people who call themselves reporters are reporting as fact.

 Let's take a closer look at one particular exchange in that segment:

John Miller: I don't mean to be flip about this. But it has a kind of a little Dr. Evil quality—to it that, "I'm going to develop a program that can destroy every computer in the world." It sounds almost unbelievable.

Debora Plunkett: Don't be fooled. There are absolutely nation states who have the capability and the intentions to do just that.

There isn't any hedging there.

The NSA employee is saying there are multiple nation-states that have both the capability and the intention to destroy every computer in the world. Which countries? As noted, it seems incredible to suggest that China has that intention. It seems less crazy to imagine North Korea wanting to destroy every computer on earth ... and highly unlikely that they have the capability. Who has the capability and the intention? 

Again, there are plenty of plausible cyber-warfare scenarios that are worrisome, and it's perfectly plausible that the NSA is doing good work to protect us from some of them. But 60 Minutes seems awfully credulous in the way they've presented this example. If there really are multiple countries that have the intention of destroying every computer on earth, and the ability to do so, perhaps that should've been the lead of the story rather than an example given in passing!

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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