Governments spy on one another, and on their people―that is what governments do. They always have and they always will. But in the era of Virtual Terrorism, spying has been taken to a whole new dimension, wherein access to other nations’ secrets, their businesses, and their people have intersected with the promotion of state interest as a new art form. Intrusion and theft beyond the reach of the law have made deception all the more possible because of anonymity. Those nations with the greatest financial, military, and cyber resources are naturally the most prolific at perpetrating Virtual Terrorism. The countries which are the most adept at this, and have been the best documented as such, are China, Russia, and the US.
We are already witnessing the emergence of an array of technology that was only recently in the realm of science fiction. The emergence of weapons that will likely shape tomorrow’s wars range from cyberwarfare to drones and from AI to virtual reality to Virtual Terrorism. The wars of the future will include a global cast of characters fighting at sea, on land, in the air, and in two new places of conflict: cyberspace and outer space. Warship captains will battle through a modern-day Pearl Harbor, fighter pilots will duel with stealthy drones, teenage hackers will battle in digital playgrounds, Silicon Valley billionaires will mobilize for cyberwar, and serial killers will carry out their own vendettas online. Victory will depend on who can best blend the lessons of the past with the weapons of the future.
Based on China’s approach to cyber and military strategy, it seems unlikely that trade, diplomacy, and common interests between the US and China will necessarily avert a real conflict. Part of the reason is China’s “Assassin’s Mace” program, which is designed to fight a technologically superior adversary. The program includes cyberwarfare, space warfare, and other systems that could disable the fighting ability of the US military. Many experts refer to the Chinese breach of the Office of Personnel Management as America’s “Cyber Pearl Harbor”, but the breach is nothing compared to what a real military cyberattack would look like. Such an attack would very quickly move a war beyond borders and into the homelands of rival nations in ways never seen before.
In 2015, China published its first official military guidelines under Xi Jinping, officially shifting its focus toward “winning informationized local wars”. Under the new strategy, the space and cyber domains are thought of as the commanding heights of strategic competition. IT will play a larger role in all aspects of military operations for all elements of the People’s Liberation Army’s combat-related activities. The new guidelines focus on the central objective of “winning” informationized local wars, indicating that high technology will become the basic form of warfare in the 21st century. In some ways, it already has.
In 2017, Russia's military admitted for the first time the scale of its information warfare effort, saying it was significantly expanded after the end of the original Cold War. Russian "information warfare" occupies a wider sphere than the current Western focus on cyberwarriors and hackers. Their aim is to control information in whatever form it takes, with one purpose being to undermine the notion of objective truth and reporting. In the 21st century, a victory in information warfare can be much more important than victory in a classical military conflict. Although bloodless, the impact can be overwhelming and can paralyze all of an enemy state’s power structures.
All of the “big three” nations in the cyberwarfare arena have formidable capabilities and tools at their disposal. Each has a unique platform from which to launch cyberattacks, alternative approaches to achieving their objectives, and different means of countering cyberthreats, which they may not wish to make publicly known so as to maintain an edge on their adversaries. As advanced as each nation is in their own cyber tradecraft, it is important to remember that the Virtual Terrorism they collectively practice remains in an embryonic state. The Internet era is not yet even three decades old. Given how far cyberwarfare has already advanced—particularly in the past ten years—it is hard to imagine what the landscape will look like ten or twenty years from now. That is a truly chilling prospect and the stakes could not be higher.
Global politics have been in a state of metamorphosis since the beginning of the 21st century, the result of the rise of extreme political parties, the War on Terror, the birth of instant communication, globalization, and a general propensity in favor of the upending of the status quo. The birth of the cyber era meshes quite well with this age of political disruption and transformation, for it is propelling the speed and depth of that change, and the world would appear to be ripe for it.
While the cyber arena and geopolitics have many characteristics that separate them—such as borders, anonymity, and the rule of law―it is these very things that are also making them more similar. For example, states have borders in the physical world but, in the cyber world, nations are able to project their power without borders. The same anonymity that is afforded hackers in the Dark Web makes government actions indistinguishable from individuals or non-state groups, since attribution may never be known for certain. And since there is no rule of law in cyber space, any actor can benefit from its absence.
The cyber era puts all cyber-enabled countries on a more equal footing. Those countries which are more advanced technologically and have more financial, intelligence, and military resources will naturally be more adept at projecting their power in cyberspace. That said, smaller and less advanced countries with fewer resources are also able to get on a more level playing field and punch well above their weight in the cyber arena. Iran and North Korea are two good examples. That is having a profound impact on the virtual geopolitical landscape and will continue to effect if, how, and when nations battle each other in cyberspace, with unpredictable outcomes.
The linkage between change in the cyber and political spheres can only become stronger as each continues to impact the other. Because the cyber era is in an embryonic stage of development, and since it has already clearly influenced, and been influenced by, global politics, it is difficult to envision a future in which their fortunes are not intertwined and do not collide. No one can predict just how this intrinsic marriage will evolve, but it is safe to assume that they will continue to impact each other’s evolution for a long time to come.
*Daniel Wagner is the author of the new book “Virtual Terror”, founder of Country Risk Solutions, and managing director of Risk Cooperative.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Guardian.