Dangerous Сold Wars in Cyberspace

Moscow, Russia (SCF) – On 22 July 2015, the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Securitypublished its third report, which in many ways can be referred to as groundbreaking.

For more than five years now, the group, established on Russia’s initiative, has been trying to find a solution to the challenging issue of today – preventing the use of modern information technologies against the national interests of countries and their security. Nearly five years of lively debate has been stopped short by fierce opposition from a number of countries in the West headed by the US. Essentially, America’s main claim revolves around Russia’s alleged desire to tighten control over the Internet and prevent «the free flow of information». It is clear that America’s real concerns have been sparked by completely different reasons: billionaires who have invested in offensive cyber wars and NSA programmes could potentially find themselves in the crosshairs of criticism from the international community.

The report is also revolutionary for the fact that it has been signed by the US. And although the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for International Cooperation in Information Security and Ambassador-at-Large of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Andrey Krutskikh, has spoken of very tense discussions in the group, but the fact remains – the US has agreed that things cannot continue as they were.

The parties generally agreed on several key issues.

Firstly, not to legalise or regulate conflicts in the information space but to prevent the use of information and communications technology (ICT) for military and political purposes.

Secondly, to refrain from recriminations regarding cyber attacks, which are becoming increasingly common these days without good evidence.

The latter fact was recently pointed out by Bruce Schneier, a renowned information security specialist, who believes that there’s a kind of cold war now being waged in cyberspace, only the trouble is we don’t always know who we’re waging it against… He also concluded, that the most difficult thing for information security analysts is determining the source of the cyber attack, since the process for carrying out new cyber attacks could be radically different from what experts expect.

Thirdly, the report emphasises the fact that ICT should be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

Fourthly, the report has, for the first time, declared the activity of inserting ‘bookmarks’ in IT products to be both illegal and malicious.

And finally, the group confirmed the sovereign right of states to deal with information and communications infrastructure within their own territory and determine their own international information security policies.

Washington’s willingness to agree to a constructive dialogue on these issues is, in many respects, explained by the fact that the US itself is currently under tremendous cyber pressure. On 12 August, for example, it became known that the cyber division of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State (IS), which is banned in Russia, had managed to once again access the personal data of around 1,400 US military personnel with a subsequent call to organise attacks against them. The published data included the department or division where the soldiers are based, email addresses, postcodes and telephone numbers, and certain other records. It is not the first time that the IS has managed to gain access to such information – there was a similar case in March 2015.

This incident once again draws attention to the very active global cyber conflicts and global vulnerability to them.

It should be pointed out that the number of US reports on the successful or unsuccessful cyber attacks being carried out against the state is growing rapidly. On 7 August, for example, the US news channel NBC News reported that the Pentagon’s computer network had been exposed to a cyber attack organised by unknown Russian hackers. And although they «failed to gain access to any secrets», the Pentagon was «troubled». The «Russian threat» in general is once again becoming a popular subject in American society, only now unspecified «Russian hackers» are in the limelight.

In this context, it is worth noting a recent statement by the head of the US Department of State, John Kerry, whotold CBS Evening News that he was not ruling out the possibility his emails were being read by hackers from Russia and China and that he had to write his email messages with this in mind. Just like during the Cold War years, the US, with methodical persistence, is once again artificially constructing an enemy from nations and states that are simply carrying out their own independent policies and have their own ways of solving global issues that do not concur with Washington’s.

All in all, while not denying the growth of cyber attacks against government and other electronic resources in the US (although these incidents are by no means necessarily state-to-state attacks, but could be carried out by criminal groups, cyber pirates or other unofficial associations), it is difficult not to point out that these scandals are taking place amid two important processes.

The first is related to the continuing conflict surrounding global surveillance by the NSA. Although US legislators have passed a number of resolutions aimed at limiting the capabilities of the NSA in this regard (making the procedure for collecting metadata more complicated, for example, and the adoption of the so-called Freedom Act on 2 May 2015), this does not mean that the NSA, as well as all the other US law enforcement agencies involved in similar electronic surveillance or offensive cyber operations, have meekly complied with them. There is clearly an agitation of public opinion under way that the level of cyber threats is growing rapidly and that it is now threatening the lives of American citizens (military personnel and their families in particular).

In this context, the release of lists allegedly obtained by the Islamic State is a rather opportune stroke of luck, since they hit several areas important to the US military at once.

Firstly, the violation of privacy, which for Americans is an almost sacred and tangible substance. In fact, if we recall the general background of the problem that arose for the NSA following Edward Snowden’s revelations, it did not begin because the NSA was spying on the whole world, but because it might accidentally violate the privacy rights of Americans. With this it is ordinary people who are finding themselves under attack, including the disclosure of all the data needed to identify them.

Secondly, it shows the vulnerability of the Defense Department’s networks, suggesting that more attention (including financial) needs to be given to the issue.

Thirdly, it is the potential for requesting the re-establishment of previous levels of surveillance, under the pretext of it being «solely for the purpose of protecting the lives and well-being of ordinary American citizens».

In addition to the above, the second important process (as a consequence of the first or running in parallel) is the impending approval of a new US budget (which takes place slightly earlier than in European countries). It seems that by increasing pressure on public opinion, US security chiefs are hoping to get themselves additional allocations specifically in the area of cyber security.

It is telling that literally on the eve of the attacks, the FBI issued a statement saying that because of low employee salaries, it was unable to staff the subdivisions responsible for IT-related crimes.

As already mentioned above, this is also helping the US gradually construct an image of America’s two ‘super enemies’ in cyberspace, China and Russia, whose hackers, according to the US military, are spending day and night just hacking government resources and generally preparing a ‘digital Pearl Harbour’ for the US. This is regularly supplemented with threats to the correspondence of senior US officials intended to deflect the attention of the global community away from the totally outrageous actions of the NSA in the same area. Especially since WikiLeaks published new information on the cyber capacity of the NSA and its actions not so long ago. This included the fact that the US has spent billions of dollars on building a cyber weapon to exploit ‘zero-day’ vulnerabilities (which was even kept secret from many employees at the NSA itself).

However, judging by the shift in the US’ attitude regarding the work of the UN Group of Governmental Experts, the US is still really uneasy about its own vulnerability. And on the back of threats from the IS that may well not be a bluff but a real threat to peoples’ lives, it is difficult to ignore the recent suggestion by the head of the Russian FSB, Alexander Bortnikov, who declared that terrorists’ calls for violence, regardless of the target, should be timely detected and blocked by the relevant agencies, and Internet sites with such content should be closed and that, to this end, the special services community has a duty to establish effective multi-format interaction in the information sphere.

It is clear that sanctions confrontation and the unilateral severance of relations with the US could only undermine US and global security and outbalance any positive outcome of the pursuit of illusory geopolitical goals associated with such actions. Washington has already effectively lost the right (as it previously lost the right in other areas) to call itself the only ‘cyber hegemony’. Desperate attempts to hold onto this position can only lead to a weakening of the US. It has become so vulnerable that even the former head of US counterintelligence, John Brenner, believes that when planning its actions, America should proceed on the assumption that every single one of its networks (including classified ones) is being hacked (according to his book «America the Vulnerable»). And this is a statement by someone who, until recently, was responsible for the country’s security.

Image Source: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner , Flickr, Creative Commons Cyberwar 80s style

Image Source: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner , Flickr, Creative Commons
Cyberwar 80s style

The nature of cyberspace threats has changed so much that tackling them alone is now almost impossible, and with the rising role of non-governmental factors could even be considered foolish. The sooner the US realises this fact, the more likely it is that threats similar to those made by the IS will never be carried out. And this means that Russia’s repeated suggestions to adopt a Convention on International Information Security or, at the very least, a Code of Practice at the international level (which is what the group of experts have been drawing closer to in their work) are becoming increasingly relevant.

Written by Boris KAZANTSEV for Strategic Culture Foundation.