Wanted: Iranian hackers

FBI director James Comey’s language in discussing the indictments of seven Iranian hackers brings to mind the language of the West.
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“The FBI will find those behind cyber intrusions and hold them accountable, wherever they are, and whoever they are,” he said.

“The world is small, and our memories are long.”

“No matter where hackers are in the world and no matter how hard they try to conceal their identities, we will find ways to pierce that shield and identify them. That is the message of this case.”

You can almost imagine John Wayne or Tommy Lee Jones delivering the words. But it’s not a joke.

The US is apparently coming to grips with this world-changing invention, and how to form a coherent response to aggression by other nation states. Thinking of the cyberrealm as an untamed frontier, one which the US cannot simply occupy, but must patrol and face showdowns in, probably makes sense.

Internally, the US has begun coordinating its prosecution to allow these kinds of cases – this is a new thing. The prosecution effort bridges national security and commercial crime in a way that is needed for the long-term strategy in the cyber frontier. Meanwhile, corporates which are long accustomed to hiding evidence of cyber intrusions from each other are taking steps toward sharing information.

As the Washington Post reports:

For years, the U.S. government had treated hacking campaigns carried out by foreign governments as matters of national security that are classified. Officials were reluctant even to acknowledge a major intrusion by a foreign country either for diplomatic or intelligence reasons.

But as the scope and severity of the intrusions have grown, that has changed.

In 2014 the US indicted 5 Chinese PLA members for economic spying online against the US. The US government has even arrested Chinese citizens caught travelling on Pacific islands like Guam and Saipan for offenses like pirating. Into the seeming chaos of globalization, the long arm of justice reaches.


The Culture of the Internet and the Fallacy of Fair Play

Part of the issue with the cyber realm is the difficulty in conceptualizing it in a way that is meaningful and understandable to the broader public. It’s everywhere but everyone’s experience of it is completely unique. With that in mind, the following line from Peter W Singer discussing Fred Kaplan’s new book ‘Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War‘ is particularly interesting:

…leaders in Washington are having a hard time accepting a simple fact — that while the Internet may have been created by a United States government research program, it is no longer under American ­government control, or even American in its makeup.

The internet has moved from an American majority to a non-American majority place. There are two issues with this worth noting.

One, I think is what I call the Fallacy of Fair Play that has dogged the thinking of US businesses and organizations on the internet. Because the internet was created in the US there is an assumption that US values, derived from courts and law, are its natural operating environment. The truth is US values no longer predominate. In fact, the understanding of the internet is very different depending on where you are on the globe.

I would compare it to how kids often understand a technology’s application in a new way from the older generation’s intentions for the technology’s use. Nations like Russia, Iran and China may have initially seen the internet as a Made-in-the-USA threat to their domestic power structure. Over time, these same nations have come to see blind spots in the America’s use of the internet – the openness, the ease of accessibility, the expectation of transparency. All of it can be subverted and exploited from outside. In addition to the spoofed emails used in APTs, there are social cyber attacks, viral news manipulation, etc.

For those of us who remember the 1980s, when the computer-to-computer communication was popularised in films such as War Games (referenced, apparently in the Kaplan’s book), the internet also spawned its own sub-culture: conspiracy theory,  RPGs, sci-fi, libertarianism, the hacker ethos, and if I recall: talk of the Illuminati and the Church of the Sub-Genius. Being a wild land that knew no distances, but brought likeminded strangers together, there were shared codes of conduct that simply emerged, drawn from the other cultures, including gaming, that many early internet users knew.

A lot of that culture informs sites like Boing Boing today. For them, the culture of the internet has been about information being free. But now nations like China and Russia make it their business to have a say in what kind of information is published online, how the conversation progresses, etc. The goal is to shape the internet-using public’s views.

The second issue: in this new world, internet users in the the US, and other open democracies, constitute a kind of outpost in a global environment not so tolerant of Western standards. As I’ve argued before, one upside is that this may offer a meaningful way for Americans to think about the internet. After all, a hostile, unknown terrain, rife with unforeseen danger (cyber aggression) and opportunity from afar are themes of the explorer and frontier days. They speak to a Wild West of sorts.

This concept could provide a cultural shorthand which American stakeholders from all walks can rally around online. It would mark a change to the existing libertarian techno culture that prevails today and that is dominated by ‘heroes’ such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. But judging from the current US election, Americans themselves may be tiring from the grandiose promise of libertarianism.

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This too is a sign of the US pivot

The Middle-East just doesn’t matter to the US like it used to.

Or as one of Obama’s guys says: “It’s not as if this is a president who has proven to be unwilling to act when he believed it was in our interest, but he’s not going to act when he doesn’t think it’s in our interest.”

The US cyber attack drumbeat continues

The US director of national intelligence puts cyber attacks at the top of the list of threats to the US. While countries like Iran are the most likely to launch crippling attacks, Clapper notes wisely that the technology is developing more quickly than the ability to assess the risks. This is plenty true in the case of China.

It’s all the more reason for the US to think strategically about its data and network security.
The fact that the DNI is testifying about hacking is a positive. This threat will not go away.

It is part of the changed strategic landscape in this new online cold war.