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War Games: Cyber Espionage and the New ‘Cold War’

Steeped in a climate of Cold War anxiety, the 1983 box office hit WarGames was a satirical product of the doomsdayish-thriller psychology of the American public in an era of nuclear proliferation. The movie humorously preyed upon the sentiments of a public mired in the fear of living in a nuclear world, with its seemingly fantastical and far-flung story of a teenage computer-whiz who nearly single-handedly instigated a third World War by hacking into government computers. In a rare convergence of cinematography and public policy, the film captured the attention of President Ronald Reagan, days after its release. In the collegial setting of Camp David, the President digressed from talk of nuclear arms strategies to synopsize the plot, much to the baffled amusement of the gathered national security advisors. He ventured the simple, yet provoking question: “Could something like this really happen?” At a time when “the first laptop computers had barely hit the market [and] public Internet providers wouldn’t exist for another few years,” Reagan’s inquiry reflected a shared public incredulity and embodied a certain paradox: if the WarGames plot was merely a comically absurd concoction of sci-fi fantasy, how did it square with the realities of nuclear technology in the modern state? And then the zinger hit: research by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John W. Vessey Jr., revealed that WarGames could not be consigned to fantasyland. “Mr. President,” he said, “the problem is much worse than you think.” WarGames only scratched the surface as to the risk and vulnerability of our systems. Thus, even in the then relatively nascent field of computer technology, there was a dawning awareness of the vast potentialities of the cyber domain.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War was brought to an unequivocal end; yet, the haunting reverberations of WarGames still has profound implications for modern diplomacy. As nation-states rapidly augment their metaphorical ‘arsenals’ of cyber capacities, the world once again enters into a state of tenuous diplomacy – largely unbeknownst to the public – with increasing instances of cyber espionage and attacks. A brief overview of cyber-aggressions in the past ten years uncovers a definitive pattern of escalation; Stuxnet, Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections, the Sony attack, and the Mandiant reports (all to be discussed in further detail) are proof of a mushrooming conflict between world powers. Modern diplomacy is daily redefined by tensions and developments in cyber technology as nations assess new threats and scramble to keep apace in the burgeoning realm of cyber activity.

With nation-states continuing to expand and deploy their new capabilities, history looks as if it is doomed to repeat itself. The prospect of cyber war draws a haunting parallel to the strained diplomacy of the Cold War era, and perhaps more significantly, will intensify the already uneasy relations between the United States, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. But while media stories certainly reflect this escalating ‘cold war’ diplomacy, they fail to ask the obvious, yet unspoken question: Are we at war?

In the late twentieth century, nuclear threats ushered in an unprecedented form of international diplomacy. As the United States and Soviet Union frantically added to their nuclear stockpiles, a diplomatic conflict ensued as the US and USSR engaged in a blustery war of words and threats. As they wrangled to assert dominance, both nations continually pushed the envelope, bringing the world closer and closer to what appeared to be an impending nuclear holocaust. In a paradoxical sense, these tactics of mutually assured destruction (MAD) and brinksmanship are what, in effect, kept the peace while simultaneously perpetuating the ‘war’ and intensifying its stakes.

Analogously, global powers are embroiled in a new form of arms race in the twenty-first century – a cyber arms race – prompting the rise of a new ‘Cold War,’ but with one noticeable difference: there are multiple players at the fore. Instead of two clashing superpowers, tensions are escalating on several fronts, with China, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the United States as the most prominent actors. Indeed, “militaries around the world are scrambling to control the digital space… [by] rapidly building up cyber forces with which to defend their own virtual territories and attack those of their rivals.” A 2013 report by Mandiant, an eminent American cybersecurity firm, revealed that China’s military developed a unit of sophisticated hackers and usurped data from American companies that threatens national security. Likewise, North Korea has, on multiple occasions, hacked into banks, purloined national security information, and engaged in ransomware attacks. Perhaps the leading instance of cyber-aggression is Russia’s interference in the 2016 US elections, having garnered extensive media coverage as a special council continues to investigate the incident. And the United States is no less active. Just recently, on November 9, 2017, Wikileaks exposed the Central Intelligence Agency’s Project Hive, which essentially aims to hack into and control IoT devices – an endless array of smart technologies, ranging from robots and sensors to process controls and healthcare instruments. Increasingly, the concepts of MAD and brinksmanship are reflected in these offensive and retaliatory cyber attacks as nations strive to upset the balance of power and address evolving threats. Clearly, the globe has entered a new Cold War era. Yet cyber technology sets the stage for a much broader, more nuanced, and less certain battlegrounds – one in which power hangs in the balance. And with capabilities like never before, it becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate this balance of power.

Most recorded instances of cyberattack leverage cyber technology as a form of espionage or political destabilization. In this sense, it is the latest ‘weapon’ in the arsenals of global superpowers, allowing attackers to reconfigure power relations remotely and discreetly. In October 2017, a South Korean lawmaker disclosed that North Korean hackers “breached the computer network of the South Korean army” and stole joint US-South Korean wartime contingency plans to “remove” Kim Jong-un. In this sense, cyber-espionage is a vehicle for carrying out traditional war more effectively, by hacking into and ‘spying’ on agencies with valuable information. However, cyber technology can also be harnessed more directly to sow political discord in enemy territory. The uncertainty and chaos surrounding Russian interference in the 2016 elections is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. It threatens the very roots of democracy and provokes distrust about the legitimacy of the current American leadership. Similarly, the infamous Sony attack of 2014 – in which North Korea crippled the Sony Corporation, literally reducing its staff to communication via pen and paper – was an attempt to obstruct the release of “The Interview” – a comedy about the fictitious assassination of Kim Jong-un. The operation was sweeping: “Mountains of documents had been stolen, internal data centers had been wiped clean, and 75 percent of the servers had been destroyed.” But what was initially a private corporate disaster became a national security threat with the invocation of 9/11. An ominous e-mail message warned: “‘Soon all the world will see what an awful movie Sony Entertainment Pictures has made. The world will be full of fear. Remember the 11th of September 2001.” This seeming ultimatum begs the question: at what point does a nation cross the line? Kim Jong-un has been quoted saying that cyberwarfare is an “‘all-purpose sword’ that allows [his] military to strike relentlessly.” The challenge with cyber activities – and what differentiates it from Cold War nuclear diplomacy – is that it is hard to distinguish between laying the foundation for attacks and attacks themselves. How does one discern espionage from explicit acts of war?

Here, the boundary blurs. But what is becoming increasingly evident is that cyber technology can be used as a form of warfare itself. An expanding issue of national security, the United States’ critical infrastructure  (which includes everything from dams to banks to hospitals to energy grids) is acutely vulnerable to cyber attack. Fred Kaplan, author of Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, explains: “You don’t have to blow up a dam. You can hack into the computer that’s controlling the flow of water in and out of the dam.” This means that what amounts to a ‘physical’ attack can be accomplished remotely. More frighteningly, there is reasonable evidence that the Chinese military has successfully breached such networks already. An article from The New York Times reveals that “its focus is on companies involved in the critical infrastructure of the United States – its electrical power grid, gas lines and waterworks. According to security researchers, one target was a company with remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America.” This puts enormous power in the hands of the Chinese military. Without employing physical manpower, China has the potential capability to paralyze US society. But while China has the potential to damage and disrupt critical infrastructure, the United States is believed to have already done so in Iran. In a joint American-Israeli operation later dubbed Stuxnet, the two nations exploited “malicious code to destroy a fifth of Iran’s uranium centrifuges in 2010.” Many have argued that this was an unequivocal act of war.

As conflicts play out on the cyber-battleground, international diplomacy is complicated by the detachment that it allows. As Russian election interference exhibits, acts of aggression and destruction in cyberspace are permitted a degree of deniability. The source of the attack is often hard to pin down, rendering attribution difficult. Moreover, attacks commissioned by a national government can be executed outside national boundaries, further diffusing the state’s direct role in warfare; the linkages become hazy and there is a distancing from blame. The cyber medium blurs the lines of what war is, and when and where it starts. With the inability to quantify ‘cyber weapons,’ discern the start of a war, or even to tell who is ‘winning,’ the task of arranging treaties between nations becomes an inconceivably complex ordeal.  

Cyber technology carries with it the capacity to redefine diplomatic relations — a power with profound ramifications for modern warfare. This power cannot go unnoticed. WarGames is a chillingly prescient reminder that a nation is never entirely secure. All it takes is one person and one computer — one mouse click— to bring down a network, a company, a nation, a way of life.

About the Author

Emily Skahill '21 is a Senior Staff Writer for the US Section of the Brown Political Review. Emily can be reached at