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Op-Ed: The thunder in the background — China, Russia, the US, and epidemic cyberwarfare

This is the classic no-win scenario, at best.

Hacks have increased through the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. — © AFP/File Noel Celis
Hacks have increased through the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. — © AFP/File Noel Celis

Cyberwarfare is one of the most likely causes of global war. If there is anything guaranteed to generate global hostility, it’s cyberwarfare. It’s been going on for decades. The latest spat with China and the US is just the lead story in an equally stinking global cyber mess.

There are state actors and “agents” of nations. There are criminal networks that can act for countries and do some business for themselves while they’re at it. There’s the occasional lone wolf and/or nut job, too.

The current situation with China and the US underlines the sheer scope of cyberwarfare. The US says Chinese agents hacked US infrastructure. China says the US is the “Empire of Hacking”. It’s all noise. Not much has changed since the 1990s.

Cyberwarfare and counter-cyberwarfare are increasingly glaring hazards to global communications. The core issue is that all global information is at risk 24/7/365. It’s not a safe situation for anyone on Earth.

International law hasn’t even tried to catch up. Ukraine wants a “Cyber United Nations” which could at least start up a working legal framework. It’s a very good idea. Like most good ideas, anti-globalists, deregulation kooks, and prehistoric nationalist basket cases will be against it.

To add some complexity, cyber warfare is more than just hacks and espionage. It’s become a whole destructive ecology:

  • Cyberwarfare is a militarized form of cybercrime in practice.
  • It’s profitable. You can make money out of it, selling information. Espionage “entrepreneurs” must be doing quite well, based on the profiles of what’s being attacked.
  • All government agencies, particularly revenue agencies, are attacked constantly by both cyberwar and cybercrime actors. The Australian Taxation Office alone recorded 3 million hacks per month last year.
  • It’s dangerous to both hackers and those hacked. Someone may take a dislike to your hack. Someone may be put at risk.
  • There are peripheral industries, like hardware and software, also profiting.
  • Cybercrime and cyberwarfare are closely related. Cyberwarfare is all about big money. Money launderers like to protect their revenue. That’s a lot of directly related pushback against law enforcement and cracking down on cybercrimes.
  • If you thought Wikileaks or Snowden were damaging, just think about what targeted information leaks about individuals and corporations can do. You’ll never hear a word about any of these cases, but they’re also a mix of cyberwar and cybercrime.

Of course, it gets worse. One way of describing cyberwar and cybercrime is “automated corruption”. Some hackers get help from inside. The US infrastructure hack didn’t even try to use malware, for example. How did they know how to do that? In cybercrime, the simplest view is usually wrong. Every case has multiple actors with their own goals. Cyberwar is a much bigger form, with perhaps thousands of actors.

In this chaotic, corrupt environment there are absolutely no fixes in place. Nobody’s shutting down cyberwar any more than they’re trying to shut down cybercrime. The result is continual extremely high levels of risk for everyone.

Infrastructure hacks are actually a pretty good indicator of risk.

Scenario in extremis:

What if someone hacked drought-ridden China’s huge water infrastructure? It’d solve nothing. It could start a war. It would put a lot of people at serious risk for the sake of a mere tit-for-tat exchange. Net achievement; a humanitarian disaster with no redeeming features whatsoever.   

Cyberwarfare, especially on this scale, also can’t solve any of the problems it creates. There are no “good” forms of depriving people of essentials. “Nukes by software” are just a different form of real nukes.

The biggest obstacle to managing cyberwar and by default cybercrime is geopolitics. Russia and China have large investments in cyberwarfare. So does the US. It’s inevitable.

Cyberwarfare is above all a direct obstacle to any sort of meaningful dialog between parties. It’s hard to discuss anything with someone you know for a fact is trying to hack you all the time.

There can be no trust.

There’s nothing on which to base trust.

Someone needs to pull the plug on the idea of cyberwarfare in its most lethal forms, not just the methodologies. This is the classic no-win scenario, at best.


The opinions expressed in this Op-Ed are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Digital Journal or its members.

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Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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