Countries now have informal gangs of cyber warriors positioned to attack foreign countries. This appears to have happened a number of times. Reports indicate that after the president of Taiwan made a congratulatory telephone call to Mr. Trump, the 45th President elect of the United States, nationalists in mainland China launched a series of cyber attacks against facilities in Taiwan. Since there are so many Chinese in the mainland, and since Taiwan is so small in comparison, one can imagine the severity of the damage. Various news reports (The Diplomat, The Jamestown Foundation, Financial Times) indicate that the current Chinese government is “worried” about the ferocity of these cyber attacks.
In China, the fear is “cyber nationalism”, the spontaneous development of nationalist “armies” of hackers who attack foreign countries viewed as being antagonistic to China. Below we list various techniques identified as being associated with cyber nationalists.
Malicious Hacking. Attacks may take place against websites of a foreign government in an “enemy” country. Or attacks may take place against foreign newsmedia that publishes information not favorable to the hacker’s home country, its foreign policy, its domestic policy, its leadership, or its government. In general, “hacking” is a broad and less-than-specific term that may refer to a number of actions including (1) Denial of Service (DOS) attacks against a website, thus more or less making it impossible for people to find the website or use it; (2) Introduction of propaganda onto the target website; for example, instead of having its regular home page show up, a defaced home page will show up containing a negative message for readers; (3) Alteration of information on a website, either in a major or subtle way; (4) introducing malicious code onto the target website.
Social Media. A second tactic is to bombard social media with the intended political message. This can be of either the positive or negative variety. “Positive” refers to setting up social media locations, such as a Facebook page, that expresses a point of view compatible with that of the cyber nationalists. “Negative” refers to visiting social media pages of organizations or individuals who have an opposing (or targeted) point of view, and introducing (or bombarding the site with) harsh comments. There are a number of social media sites, but since Facebook is the world’s largest carrier of email, for all practical purposes, these social media wars take place on Facebook.
News Media. An increasing number of online news outlets invite comments on different news stories. Actually, this is a form of customer retention strategy. People will keep coming back to a website if they can “interact” with it. Sometimes these comments can be made anonymously; other times they require registration to identify the commentators. Online registration has a variety of levels of security and authenticity. In most cases, however, it is possible to register with only a reference email account, and email accounts themselves can be false. This makes it possible for trolls to be accredited anonymously, or to even register under more than one identity. These comments in the media can have a significant effect, one would suppose. (We need to take a look at more detailed social science and communications/media research to see if anyone has empirically measured the effects on public opinion and published the results in a scientific journal.) But for the time being, let’s assume these armies of commentators can have an effect.
Other Examples of Cyber Nationalism
China is not the only country with entrenched cyber nationalists. Russia is reported to have conducted “information warfare” in connection with its campaign in the Ukraine. (See “Cyber Threats and Russian Information Warfare” published by the Jewish Policy Center; or “Russia’s Information Warfare” published in Politico; or “Russian and the Menace of Unreality: How Vladimir Putin is revolutionizing information warfare” published in The Atlantic; or “Что такое информационная война?” [What is Information Warfare?] published in ВОПРОСИК; or “Информационная война: определения и базовые понятия” [Information warfare: definitions and basic concepts] published in PsyFactor; or “論中共「信息戰」之不對稱作戰” [The Asymmetric Operation/War of PRC’s Information Warfare] . )
And there is no reason to single out Russia or China only. Other countries do the same thing. For Israel, see “Information and Warfare: The Israeli Case” by Gideon Avidor and Russell W. Glenn. India established an “Information Warfare Agency” to counter messages from its dear friends in Pakistan. We can assume that every advanced country has developed an information warfare strategy, or at least is thinking about it. Some countries are better than others.
Issues for Cyber Arms Control
The essential problem of Cyber Nationalism is its informal nature. In cases like China, and reportedly Russia (which are the strongest examples), there is little if any connection between the government and the cyber nationalist movements. What we have is the spontaneous formation of nationalist cyber activists who are willing to cross over international borders and take cyber action in support of their country. In their heart, they are patriots, eager to defend the honor and reputation of their homeland as they see it.
It would be difficult and probably very controversial for any government to crack down on their private citizens because they were promoting their country overseas in cyberspace.
This means that in terms of an international treaty for control of cyber weapons, cyber nationalism would be problematical to include. It would mean that by acquiescing to an international agreement (treaty) nations would need to agree to crack down (arrest; prosecute; punish; fine) their own nationals when they engage in international cyber activism. Even if there were such an agreement, it would be very difficult to enforce from a practical point of view.
- How would the government be notified of the violation overseas?
- How would it be possible to verify the true identity of the person committing the violation?
- What would be the evidentiary requirements in the judicial process?
- What would happen if the action taken abroad by a cyber nationalist was considered a crime where it was committed, but not a crime in the country which is the domicile of the alleged offender? (For example, would a United States prosecutor punish an American citizen because they published information on a Chinese website that in China was considered to be illegal, but in the US would be acceptable or even a form of protected speech?)
- Given the number of persons involved, how would it be possible from a practical point of view to police the actions of hundreds of thousands of citizens?
The Criminal Element of Cyber Activism. In the above list, we mentioned two general classes of cyber activism expressing cyber nationalism. In most cases, working on social media and making comments on newsmedia websites that themselves invite commentary would not be illegal, regardless of how outrageous or biased the comments. On the other hand, cyber vandalism (denial of service attacks; hacking of websites to change or distort the information there) is definitely illegal, and probably illegal in all countries.
Application to International Treaty
Figure 1 Treaty coverage for cyber crimes connected with cyber nationalism.
We can conclude, therefore, that an international treaty might be able to tighten up the enforcement against criminal actions. Presumably, Country A would be willing to prosecute its citizens who performed recognized cyber crimes in Country B, if Country B was willing to prosecute its citizens who performed recognized cyber crimes in Country A. See Figure 1.
This type of agreement would be difficult to negotiate because the definition of cybercrime changes from one country to another. It would be easier to start with bilateral treaty negotiations, but more effective if a global treaty could be put in place.