Ransom Attacks Should Make Xi WannaSmile
(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- The timing couldn't be better. Just as President Xi Jinping steps on stage to outline his vision for a Chinese century, the world becomes hostage to malicious software.
This weekend's ransomware offensive hit hundreds of thousands of computers in at least 150 countries. The financial toll is still being calculated; the psychological toll could be infinite.
Developed by the security agency of China's biggest rival and exploiting a ubiquitous product developed by that country's globally dominant software company, the attacks offer Xi the perfect opportunity to make the case for an alternative to Microsoft Corp. and its Windows operating system. That the techniques used in the attacks were stolen from the National Security Agency also makes this the perfect chance to argue that global technology can't be trusted in the hands of a single nation.
But there's no alternative to the U.S. or to Microsoft, yet. Both Apple Inc. and the open-source Linux operating system offer solid non-Microsoft options, however two decades after their introduction, neither has gained the traction needed to knock Windows off its perch.
China already tried, and failed, to build its own operating system. Ultimately, it lacked the technical chops to pull it off -- including a dearth of software engineers -- while its fast-expanding industries had no real reason to install what they knew to be an inferior product in favor of one that was already sufficient for the task.
There's nothing to suggest that a Chinese OS would be any better or any more secure, but since Edward Snowden's revelations about the breadth and depth of U.S. spying, the world has been looking at the global superpower with increasing suspicion. That's helped dilute China's reputation as an evil empire that spies on its citizens and suppresses information. If not "innocent," China now looks "just as bad."
Which brings us to WannaCry, a nickname for this latest ransomware. Xi on Sunday spoke of a "world fraught with challenges" and offered his own multilateral plan as an antidote. He probably wasn't talking about cyber security, but it plays to his "alternative to America" theme that hospitals, police stations and payments processors worldwide were affected. Helping his case was a strongly worded statement from Microsoft President Brad Smith, who called the attack a wake-up call, and likened the development of cyber tools by agencies to stockpiling physical weapons.
Things have changed since China last attempted to build an OS. Its military and security agencies now employ thousands of people for the purpose of finding, penetrating and exploiting foreign computer systems, and their efficacy is testimony to the nation's advancement in software engineering. Meanwhile, its multilateral trade and assistance policies help build infrastructure in developing countries that paint China as a friendly, helpful ally.
All Xi needed to rally the world, and his countrymen, behind an alternative to the current technology hegemony -- and with it a new operating system -- was a catalyst. WannaCry gives him just the reason to smile.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.
To contact the author of this story: Tim Culpan in Taipei at firstname.lastname@example.org.