16 November 2018
Even small and poor rogue states like North Korea or terrorist groups like the Islamic State are capable of mounting cyber attacks against the big powers. Photo: Internet
Even small and poor rogue states like North Korea or terrorist groups like the Islamic State are capable of mounting cyber attacks against the big powers. Photo: Internet

Third World War already well underway in cyberspace

Ever since the Second World War ended, there has always been talk of when the next global war will break out. But probably what many people don’t realize is that the Third World War everybody fears has been underway over the past decade with the United States, Russia and China as the principal players.

Yet unlike the two previous world wars, the ongoing Third World War is being fought not on real battlefields but in the cyberworld.

The technologies being applied in this cyber war have come a long way over the years so much so they can not only do simple tasks such as enabling hackers to steal emails from state leaders’ personal computers, but are also capable of toppling regimes, taking control of strategic military bases or even creating financial turmoil on enemy soil.

Contrary to popular belief that most hackers are either “lone wolves” or work for non-governmental bodies like WikiLeaks, the ongoing cyber war is mainly dominated by state-sponsored hackers, many of whom are themselves either military or intelligence personnel.

Suffice it to say that the ongoing cyber war among the great powers is indeed a lot closer to us and far more intense than most people think.

Nothing exemplifies the magnitude and intensity of this global outbreak of hostilities in cyberspace more than Russia’s alleged intervention in last year’s US presidential election and the Russia-gate scandal that is currently engulfing the White House.

As early as in 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) already noticed that the internet servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) were under attack by Russian hackers.

Worse still, contractors overseeing cyber security of the Democratic Party campaign office found that its servers had already been “conquered” by two hacker groups that were closely related to the Russian government, resulting in hundreds of thousands of confidential emails having been stolen. Many of these emails were later made public via WikiLeaks.

After months of investigation, both the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) concluded that the hacking was indeed part of a massive, systematic and secret campaign orchestrated by the Russian government to smear Hillary Clinton in order to boost Donald Trump’s odds of winning the election.

The ODNI even believed that the secret operation had been directly ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself in a sinister attempt to “ruin Hillary Clinton’s popularity and undermine the confidence of American society in their democratic system”.

Ironically, it appears Moscow’s plan has backfired, as President Trump and his inner circle are now deeply engulfed in the Russia-gate scandal, a full-blown political crisis that could eventually derail his presidency.

Apart from Russia, the US is also fighting against another major enemy in the ongoing global cyber war: China. However, unlike Moscow, Beijing appears to be a lot more interested in mounting economic cyber espionage rather than spying on key political figures in Washington.

Over the years, the US has been accusing China of systematically hacking into the database of American hi-tech companies in order to steal their business and technology secrets. In 2014 the US Justice Department even named five officers of the People’s Liberation Army and charged them with hacking into the networks of several American companies to steal their corporate secrets.

Even though Beijing had continued to disavow any connection with or involvement in these cyber attacks, in 2015 it reached an agreement with Washington, under which it pledged to ban any form of economic cyber espionage activity against US companies.

Nevertheless, according to several reports recently published by civilian cyber security monitoring groups in America, there are increasing signs that Chinese hackers have begun to switch from economic espionage to strategic espionage against the US and its allies.

However, in the eyes of Moscow and Beijing, it was just the pot calling the kettle black when the US accused them of sponsoring cyber espionage because the American government itself has been doing exactly the same thing; one example is project “PRISM” of the National Security Agency, which had been kept secret until it was brought to light by Edward Snowden in 2013.

What makes cyber attacks or cyber terrorism so fearsome is their asymmetrical nature: even small and poor rogue states like North Korea or terrorist groups like the Islamic State are capable of mounting cyber attacks against big powers like the US and inflicting severe damage at a very low cost.

Besides, what truly differentiates cyber attacks from conventional warfare is that in most cases, you just don’t know who is actually attacking you.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on August 3

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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