In a world in which people are beginning to take cyberwarfare for granted, the United States remains wary of Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. These four nations are apparently threatening United States security to the greatest extent, at least according to the United States government and intelligence agencies. In particular, a recent report produced by the US Select Committee on Intelligence suggests that the United States faces a wide range of cyber threats, ranging from rival nations to criminals, and outlines the ways in which the US should consider addressing this growing problem.
Clapper report focuses on China
National intelligence expert James Clapper has authored the report in question, and Clapper has placed a particular focus on China. The report suggests that the United States has failed to make it sufficiently difficult enough for China to gather information on the US government.
This comes at rather an inconvenient time for both nations, considering the forthcoming state visit of Chinese supremo Xi Jinping. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission will be visiting the White House in the coming weeks. The date of the visit has not been confirmed publicly, but it is expected to take place on September 24-25.
While publicly both China and the United States retain a diplomatic relationship with one another, in private the two naturally view each other with suspicion. The 21st century will indeed be defined by an increasing rivalry between China and the United States, as the two largest economies on the planet vie for geopolitical supremacy. If the twentieth century was the American century, it has been suggested in some quarters that the twenty-first century will be viewed as the Chinese century by the time that it is completed.
Naturally, the prospect is not particularly fondly welcomed in the US, which has become accustomed to being the hegemonic global power over the last few decades. Fairly recently, officials from the United States government were able to confidently proclaim that the United States was such a superpower that no-one could reasonably stand up to it. Indeed, the history of the United States illustrates the nation utilizing the power of veto at the expense of every other UN nation on numerous occasions.
So the warning that Clapper made, namely that “although China is an advanced cyber actor in terms of capabilities, Chinese hackers are often able to gain access to their targets without having to resort to advanced capabilities”, will be a chilling one to the United States government. It is perhaps not surprising that China has the capability to hack the United States authorities’ information technology systems, but the apparent lack of expertise required will clearly be of concern.
US citizens themselves are no strangers to government hacking, considering the revelations that came out via Edward Snowden. There is no doubt that the activities of the National Security Agency have considerably exceeded that supposed mandate of the organization, and certainly represent an overarching unconstitutional policy. Considering the familiarity of the US public with this behavior, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that China is both capable of hacking US systems, and indeed is doing so.
But the ease with which this can apparently take place does make a strong argument for improved US cyber security. Clapper suggests that this would complicate Chinese cyber espionage activities by “addressing the less sophisticated threats, and raising the cost and risk if China persists.”
Meanwhile, Clapper also opines that Russia is currently in the process of developing a government-led program that will ensure that cyberwarfare is a central pillar of its defense strategy. Again, this would not be considered hugely surprising, as Russia and China are forging increasingly strong links with one another. In particular, the two nations play a particularly prominent role in the so-called BRICS nations; a power bloc of growing significance and influence.
According to Clapper, “Russia’s ministry of defense is establishing its own cyber command which, according to senior Russian military officials, will be responsible for conducting offensive cyber activities, including propaganda operations and inserting malware into enemy command and control systems”. Considering the advancement in Russia military technology, it is also notable that the report stated that “Russia’s armed forces are also establishing a specialised branch for computer network operations.”
With focus on both Russia and China central to US government activities, it is also interesting that the report alleges that Russian hackers have already infiltrated at least three industrial control system vendors using specially crafted malware. This shows that nation states are able to utilize similar techniques to those that are often used in so-called ‘black hat’ hacking.
Iran and North Korea concern
In addition to assessing two of the major players in international affairs, the report also examined the behavior of Iran and North Korea. While neither of these two nations can possibly be reasonably categorized with China and Russia, according to Clapper both still pose a threat to US security. This has been underlined with successful attacks on Las Vegas casinos and Sony Entertainment Pictures.
With regard to these two nations, it has been suggested by National Security Agency director Michael Rogers that attacks from Iran have eased off considerably since an agreement was made over the nuclear program in the Middle Eastern nation. Rogers noted that there has been “less activity directed directly” against the United States since then, but that the nation is still very much under surveillance from the US authorities.
Many observers will note that both Iran and North Korea appeared in the United States ‘Axis of Evil’, which has underpinned the US foreign policy in the post-9/11 world, and that Russia and China are obvious rivals of the US as well. While these security documents unquestionably have credibility, and there is no specific reason to disbelieve the contents of them, our viewpoint on them should be colored by a realistic perspective.
The United States has equally carried out cyberattacks on other nations, and indeed the National Security agency that is monitoring the behavior of these countries can hardly be viewed as purer than the driven snow. While it is easy to see such issues in terms of right and wrong, the overall picture is in fact far more complex than this simplistic assessment.