Political actors — including both superpowers and emerging economies — for decades have used cyberattacks, hacks, leaks, and malware to gain a political edge over their enemies and to keep their allies in line. One of the earliest and most notable events involved René Camille, comptroller general of the Vichy French Army and an agent for the French Resistance, who hacked the punched card system used by the Nazis to locate Jews in the early 1940s.
Over time, the scope, scale and sophistication of politically motivated attacks have increased alongside their malicious intentions. In 2004, North Korea trained an army of 500 hackers who sabotaged South Korea's computer networks. Flash forward to the present and the US is accusing Russia of targeting its energy infrastructure.
Cyber strategies have become just as important as physical arms in the battle for world supremacy. Here is a quick look at four broad categories these new cyber forces execute through clicks rather than triggers.
Political actors are adding cyber weapons to their arsenal since they have a number of distinct advantages over traditional bombs and missiles. They are less expensive (the cost of just one Tomahawk cruise missile hovers around $1.8 million), and attackers can activate them at a moment's notice. Moreover, retaliation is not as likely because attribution is so difficult and loss of life is likely to be far less than in direct combat.
One recent example is the sabotage of missiles and missile programs rather than relying solely on unreliable and expensive antimissile interceptors. This tactic has strategic appeal because the adversary may suspect a technical flaw rather than sabotage. For instance, the US built the so called "left-of-launch" capability aimed at disabling North Korea's nuclear missile systems on the ground prior to launch. In the case of Iran, the US built and deployed project Nitro Zeus as a cyber alternative to full-scale war.
Using cyber means to distribute misinformation and propaganda and instill controversy, confusion, doubt, and anger among targeted populations has grown in popularity. Russia's influence on the US elections (from the Democratic National Convention hack to social media troll farms and millions of ads) is well documented. Overall, Russia is suspected of political meddling in 27 countries since 2004.
Although not as infamous as Russia, other countries have also leveraged cyber tactics for political gains. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar stand accused of hacking emails, releasing "dirt" and weaponizing fake news to influence American policy on both Iran and the stance on a UAE-led blockade of its country. Even less industrialized nations, such as Vietnam, are going cyber for political advantage. Vietnam is suspected of hacking and releasing sensitive Philippine documents, including a transcript of a phone call between President Trump and President Duterte, in an apparent attempt to derail the Philippines from strengthening ties with the US and China.
Many countries with less-than-stellar human rights records have deployed cyber weapons as surveillance tools against their own citizens. These can be homemade or tools purchased from cyber-arms dealers. Examples include: China's focus on dissidents and political activists in Hong Kong, Mexico's hacking and tracking of journalists, Pakistan's surveillance of human rights defenders, and Iran's cyber harassment of protesters.
Nation-State Digital Espionage
In addition to leveraging expensive spies, countries have been using digital espionage for over half a century. With most sensitive data now available in digital format on network-accessible servers, this type of espionage has proven to be extremely powerful and allows for fast access to troves of information. China's hack of the Office of Personnel Management as well as its alleged theft of F-35 blueprints are examples of this type of cyberattack. The US government also engages in spying campaigns, as revealed by Edward Snowden.
What's next? Just like their physical counterparts, cyber arms will continue to become more advanced and pervasive. They are also becoming more "democratized" and accessible to developing countries that we do not normally associate strong military capabilities with. Eventually, cyber weapons will turn out to be more influential than the military in determining world supremacy.
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