Cyberattacks between nation states really do feel like the secret world war being waged right now without anyone ever really admitting that’s what it is.
This week, Chinese attacks against the US were big news. As the New York Times reported:
On Monday, the United States again accused China
of cyberattacks. But these attacks were highly aggressive, and they reveal that China has transformed into a far more sophisticated and mature digital adversary than the one that flummoxed U.S. officials a decade ago.
The Biden administration’s indictment for the cyberattacks, along with interviews with dozens of current and former American officials, shows that China has reorganized its hacking operations in the intervening years. While it once conducted relatively unsophisticated hacks of foreign companies, think tanks and government agencies, China is now perpetrating stealthy, decentralized digital assaults of American companies and interests around the world.
China hit back, denying the accusation it had hacked Microsoft software, and “claiming through state media that it was the victim of cyber warfare and alleging three specific attacks on China originating from the US,” as Australia’s ABC
There’s always going to be a whole heap of propaganda and misdirection when it comes to making sense of who’s doing what in cyberwarfare. Unlike physical combat, it can be far harder for the general public to do anything other than believe whoever they trust most about what happened. But it’s safe to assume Western countries fling their fair share of attacks towards countries like Russia and China - it’s just that we don’t hear about them.
Countries like the US might have a problem, though. As the New York Times’ Nicole Perlroth explained in a Twitter thread
, authoritarian countries have an advantage in how they can deploy their country’s resources on cyber attacks. “The US faces a huge talent shortage. It can’t force engineers at Lockheed into its ranks, or force Google’s engineers to moonlight for Cyber Command. That’s not how it works in a free market economy, one whose IP has been raided for years.”
In the 21st century, we might have to rethink what a ‘world war’ is. What if World War III is just countries constantly hacking each other without a bomb ever being dropped? And if authoritarians are better geared up to fight the 21st century’s dirty behind-the-scenes battles, Western democracies are going to struggle to compete.
Case in point: this week it emerged that authoritarian governments have been using spyware from Israeli company NSO to hack the phones of as many as 50,000 opponents and journalists around the world. The Guardian found
180 journalists on the list, including the editor of the Financial Times and reporters from some of the world’s best-known media outlets.
You’re probably not a victim (these were targeted attacks) but TechCrunch reported on a tool
you can use to find out if your phone (iOS or Android) has been affected.