It is said that “knowledge is power”, and in today’s globalized, high tech, digital world this is truer than ever. Never has information been more accessible and, at the same time, more valuable than in the 21st century. As the rising superpower it is, the People’s Republic of China is demonstrating with its intelligence structure and advanced technology that it is ready to exploit this modern source of power.
In recent weeks, China is being accused of cyber espionage by the United States, and not for the first time. But what makes the case controversial today is the wide range of varied targets it has chosen in the last years. Since 2006, 115 organizations in the U.S have been hacked by agencies that are assumed to be State-sponsored. Apple, Twitter, Facebook, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and even the U.S Department of Energy have reported diverse attempts of espionage.
The Virginia-based American cyber security firm Mandiant has tracked the “headquarters” of the People’s Liberation Army, responsible for the majority of the attacks, to an ordinary building in Shanghai. According to the report provided by the firm, the Chinese military is associated with this organization and the “Comment Crew”, the alleged author of the massive hack attack that stole Coca Cola’s negotiation strategy in 2009. The Chinese government has denied the accusations and argued that China itself has been the victim of various cyber attacks coming from the United States.
But whether or not the United States or any international organization can take direct action to sanction China for cyber espionage through ordinary legal mechanisms is irrelevant. The fact remains and every nation should come to terms with it: cyberspace will be the battlefield of intense wars, conflicts and attacks in the following decades, and China owns a powerful cyber warfare infrastructure that could defy any country’s intelligence capabilities.
The power hackers have today goes beyond stealing passwords and obtaining classified information. Cyber espionage can lead to the manipulation and alteration of industrial processes and entire systems in any location of the globe. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the case of the U.S and Israel, suspected of “infecting an Iranian uranium enrichment plant with malicious software that caused the centrifuges to spin out of control and self-destruct.” Aware of the reach and impact that cyber espionage can have, the U.S fears that the attacks coming from China have the purpose of altering some of the nation’s most indispensable infrastructure, such as energy sources and chemical processes.
Cyberspace provides endless tools to blur the barriers of time and space, allowing organizations, institutions and networks to operate “glocally”. In this universe, identity and location haze in an infinite space that provides a comfortable environment for secret operation and surprise attacks. Cyber actors are privileged with omnipresence and invisibility. They can be everywhere and nowhere, belong to one or many nations or even belong to none at all, operate outside the reach of State and international laws and target state and non-state actors.
The implications of a cyber attack can be catastrophic for the United States’ economy and national security. Earlier this month President Obama signed an executive order to address the nation’s cyber security needs and has declared his intentions of reinforcing the U.S’s cyber security. But what are the limits, the rules and the boundaries in Cyberspace?
Today we are witnessing the evolution of transnational conflict into a hardly tangible matter. Cybercrime, as with terrorism and transnational organized crime, is a product of the fusion of globalization, technology and information that modernity puts in our hands almost indiscriminately. Its traits and its essence inevitably pose challenges that the State needs to address, but might be unfit to. State and international laws as we know them and the State’s capabilities and possibilities might be limited when it comes to confronting a cyber enemy.
In this context, cyber wars might dictate the course of the 21st century’s most interesting international confrontations. In the globalized, interdependent and highly technological world we live in, whoever dominates cyberspace gains unprecedented power that knows no limits yet.