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China, US Agree To Not Conduct Cyberespionage For Economic Gain

Pledge applies to stealing trade secrets but stops short of banning traditional espionage via hacking.

In a historic move, Chinese president Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama on Friday came to an agreement promising that neither nation would engage in cyber espionage for economic gain.

Cyberspying has been a notoriously prolific US strategy for China, with the US among its top targets. But China has vehemently denied any such hacking activity. In a press briefing, Obama reportedly called it a first step and "common understanding," but appeared cautiously optimistic about the final agreement. "The question now is, are words followed by actions?" he said of China's cooperation.

The US has maintained that it does not conduct cyberspying for economic gain for US companies. Xi and Obama's meeting of the minds comes at a time when the administration has promised sanctions for foreign or other hackers that hack into US companies or organizations for economic gain and stealing intellectual property. Sanctions are still a tool the administration plans to keep in its toolkit.

Security experst are skeptical that any official deal can ultimately be struck. "There will be no cybersecurity deal, due to a number of factors. The key one being that in order to even agree not to attack critical infrastructure they would have to admit they have the capability to do so, as well as possibly disclose some of those capabilities. This process could reveal attacks and reconnaissance already conducted, which is a particular challenge for China as they have taken a stance of complete innocence when it comes to cyber war and espionage to the point of claiming naivety," says Ken Westin, senior security analyst with Tripwire.

But the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) lauded the agreement between the two presidents. "This agreement finally starts a sustained dialogue where there was very little communication. It illustrates a spirit of cooperation on a sensitive issue, which is a positive signal to technology companies," said Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council, which has been involved with talks between the US and China on the topic. "We will work to ensure this cooperation on cybersecurity will be a bridge to improved market access for global technology companies. ITI and its members, which include the world’s most innovative companies, will continue to work with both governments to further mutual understanding and ensure implementation of these commitments."

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