If war is politics by other means, then so increasingly, is cyberwarfare. Consider the laundry list of attacks crisscrossing the world right now: Anonymous, the Western anti-establishment hacker collective which started in the U.S., is waging a “full-scale cyber war” against ISIS–at the same time the U.S. is bombing the group. Russian hackers have exploited a Microsoft Windows bug to spy on Ukrainians, and they are thought to be behind an enormous attack on JPMorgan and other businesses–as Russian president Vladimir Putin continues to ratchet up his rhetoric against the U.S..
Meanwhile, the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are buzzing with digital crossfire–protesters have their WhatsApp accounts hacked by malicious software from the Chinese mainland, and Anonymous has reportedly attacked a series of Chinese government websites.
There’s a lot of crime and very few fingerprints: It’s rare that you can ever ascribe a precise motive to these attacks, and it’s rare for Western governments or companies to publicly respond. (A few weeks after the attacks on Facebook-owned WhatsApp, Mark Zuckerberg was speaking Chinese in Beijing.) Many countries have devoted cyber warfare units that know how to cover their tracks, and just about every country now has cyber vigilantes and criminals motivated by their own specific needs, missions or grievances.
But even so, the attack on JPMorgan seems to mark a harbinger of things to come: doubling as a possible moneymaker and a blow against Uncle Sam. We know the scale of the attack–bank officials say the hackers gained access to data related to 76 million households–and we know it comes at a time when the U.S. is targeting Russian financial assets. (Meanwhile, the U.S. government is charging five Chinese military officers for hacks against other American companies.)
If American authorities know the JP Morgan hackers’ motives, they’re not saying. “A few gigabytes of really sensitive data would be devastating, but a few gigabytes of not so sensitive data would not be as bad,” said Candid Wueest, a global threats researcher at Symantec, emphasizing that investigators have not released key information about the hack yet.
In a somewhat similar but more surprising way, Anonymous–a hacking collective that has seen many members arrested by the FBI–has repeatedly targeted governments and groups that offend western values. No one expects Anonymous and the federal government to collaborate, but the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing hacktivist group is often targeting the same groups that the U.S. State Department is taking to task–Libya in 2011, and Hong Kong and Syria today. All of which is to say that the actions of hackers may be driven by cultural factors–Russian and Chinese Nationalism, western liberalism–as much as any government command.
“I think many of these developments in the cyber context are related to the emergence of a different type of more unstable, multipolar international system,” said David Fidler, a leading expert on international law and cyber security at Indiana University. Fidler says that the increasing fragmentation and hostility of the Internet echoes past great power rivalries over maritime spaces, air space, and outer space.
“If you go back to the early days of cyberspace and the Internet, that was back in a very unusual historical period where we had a quasi-U.S. hegemony,” Fidler said. “That’s when people began to believe that cyberspace would be different, that it would be different from anything that we’ve experienced before, both in terms of the communications technology but also as this space for human interaction. That’s what I think is really coming under threat.”
The confrontations that are shaping up now are expected to be far more chaotic, with fluid alliances between different groups and interests cutting across national borders.
The obsessive focus of the leading world governments on cyber offense has produced or inspired a rapidly growing number of highly sophisticated malware that can infect practically any system–from disabling nuclear centrifuges to turning people’s iPhones into all-room listening devices. The best such hacks exploit vulnerabilities unknown even to the makers of the software, known as “zero-day exploits,” are available on the black market.
If the means of offense are often decentralized, the means of defense are still often run by governments, especially in the East. Both “the Great Firewall of China” and the attempts countries such as Russia and China to regulate the Internet along national lines point to undemocratic countries’ hopes to bulwark themselves from western attacks.
Digital rights advocates say that by creating a vastly different experience of the Internet for users in different countries, oppressive governments seek to interrupt the free flow of information and ideas that has made the Internet what it is today.
“The Internet has been a very important tool for realizing human rights–especially for the right to freedom of expression, which is an enabler of all other rights,” said Gigi Alford, Freedom House’s senior program officer for Internet Freedom. “The crackdown on these rights in countries around the globe is playing out in spades in the digital world.”
As with the Cold War, there’s a risk hovering over all this that skirmishes can break out into something world-changing. Officials often invoke major natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy to illustrate what a major cyber confrontation would look like: the power grid down for days alongside the internet and mobile networks. Drivers unable to pump gas, ATMs out of order, hospitals in disarray, food and clean water supplies dwindling.
The doomsday scenario is bad, but the status quo of escalating tensions between groups in an increasingly connected world is nerve-wracking. “I am worried (about the future of cyberspace),” said Fidler.