What is at stake in the global cyber arms race

In 2010, Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges were attacked and rendered useless through a computer virus that became known as Stuxnet . It was the first case in which a hacker attack, coordinated by nations (presumably the United States and Israel), hit a large military target in the “real world”. A worldwide race to create or acquire cyber weapons was taking shape at that time.

The then US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, warned in 2010 on the dangers of a possible large-scale digital attack against the United States with the possibility of causing death and destruction in the real world.

The threat was dubbed at the time “Cyber ​​Pearl Harbor” . Washington promised that, if that happened, it would retaliate not only digitally, but with any kind of weapons it deemed necessary, including nuclear missiles.

The “Cyber ​​Pearl Harbor”, ie a war between nations initiated by a cyber attack of great proportions, did not happen.

What was configured on a global scale was a scenario of constant cyber conflicts and at different levels. However, with actions more restricted to the virtual universe.

The biggest powers in these confrontations are today the United States, China, Russia, Iran and Israel. According to Eduardo Izycky, a researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, these countries produce offensive cyber capabilities and are able to apply them on a global scale.

They have been directly operating or sponsoring puppet groups private (in an attempt to camouflage the origin of the actions). They carry out operations such as theft of technological secrets, espionage, sabotage of critical infrastructure and dissemination of false information.

An example of this was the theft of American industrial secrets by Chinese hackers supposedly between

and 2013. According to a survey by Foreign Affairs magazine, this generated annual losses between US$ 80 billion and US$ 200 billion to the US and enabled China to move forward with its industrial program “Made in China 2025”.

Another example occurred between 2014 and 2015, when Russia reportedly used hackers to destabilize the Ukraine election and bring down the country’s electricity grid, leaving more than 80 a thousand people without power.

Race is motivated by geopolitical disputes

Cybernetic conflicts do not arise from the virtual universe itself. They are based on geopolitical disputes that already occur in the “real world”.

Thus, as they see their rivals exploring cyber capabilities, more and more countries outside the circle of traditional powers begin to buy or develop their own resources. This movement has been generating, since the middle of 2015, a global race for cyber weapons.

Countries such as Vietnam, Turkey, UAE, France, South Korea, India and Pakistan started by buying technology from private companies and are now developing their own cyber resources. They are intended for regional disputes, according to Izycky.

But what are cyber weapons anyway?

They are called in military jargon “artifacts”, but it’s about of computer programming codes that infect systems of opposing nations. They are used to steal information, destabilize communications, destroy or disable equipment, bring down electrical networks, among other objectives.

During conventional warfare, they serve as support to extract information from the enemy, disable weapons and systems of communication and destabilizing chains of command and control.

In other words, they are computer “viruses” that operate with different degrees of complexity. These are malware (malicious software), exploits (pieces of software that take advantage of a design defect in other software) and techniques such as denial of service (when a website goes down due to excessive, purposeful simultaneous access).

Nations can use anything from simple malware and techniques known and used by common cybercriminals, such as advanced cyber weapons. Some of these “artifacts” are extremely complex and expensive. They allow hacking into computers and cell phones without users clicking on a suspicious link or opening a file – they’re called “zero clicks”. They are also hardly traceable and have a whole structure of equipment and personnel to function.

Low risk of retaliation encourages actions

“You have a margin maneuverability, which the cybernetic dimension provides. You cause damage to your opponent, you have an advantage for yourself – you steal technology and develop a state-of-the-art fighter, for example – and the cost of this, from a geopolitical, diplomatic or even economic sanction point of view, is low”, said Izycky.

The most effective American response scenarios to cyber attacks to date have not involved planes, armored vehicles, ground troops, nor much less have taken the form of a nuclear mushroom.

In 2014, Sony Pictures decided to make a film satirizing North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. Hackers from Pyongyang hacked into the company’s servers and publicized a series of compromising e-mails from the movie industry. Afterwards, they threatened to make more “terrorist” attacks.

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Former President Barack Obama he publicly blamed Kim Jong-un and lifted the first economic sanctions in history in response to a cyber conflict against North Korea. Pyongyang’s actions ceased soon after.

The following year, Obama managed to reduce the theft of American technology by Chinese operators by confronting President Xi Jinping in a diplomatic meeting.

Thus, the cyber arms race appears to differ in at least one aspect from the conventional or nuclear arms race: that of deterrence.

In general, a country tries to improve its conventional military capability when it sees the nation neighbor arming herself. The idea is to avoid being attacked.

But that doesn’t necessarily happen in cyber conflict. The United States has a very high capacity for cyber conflict and yet is the target of numerous attacks.

In other words, cyber conflict between nations is more similar to the dynamics of crime and espionage than to the dynamics of war. That’s because, like crime, cyber attacks cannot be eradicated, but kept at acceptable levels.

Last year, a hacker group allegedly linked to the Russian government attacked an American pipeline. This caused panic among consumers and fuel shortages at stations.

US President Joe Biden told Russian President Vladimir Putin that attacks on critical US infrastructure were beyond the limits tolerated by Washington. Subtly, he threatened to take the same kind of cyber conflict measures against Russia.

Moscow does not allow hacking actions. Claims they are independent criminal groups. However, these criminals are hardly ever arrested, which leads international analysts to speak of collusion or even partnership.

Although other smaller attacks on the US have been carried out later by Russian groups, it is still not possible know exactly what the long-term effect of the Biden threat will be.

Distabilization of political systems

The targets of cyber weapons are not just industrial secrets , critical infrastructure and command and control systems. One of the most important aspects of conflict in cyberspace is misinformation.

Yes, we are dealing with “fake news” on social networks – when they are broadcast by governments (directly or through private companies or

A recent example is a strong investment in social media advertising by China to publicize the idea that the origin of the Covid pandemic- would be the United States and not Wuhan.

According to an October report 2021 in the Independent newspaper, Beijing has been claiming on social networks and media linked to the country that the virus had arrived in China in a shipment of lobsters from the country. United States.

However, the most concrete examples of disinformation campaigns were Russia’s alleged attempts to influence the outcome. and discredit the American electoral process. First by hacking the Democratic Party in 2016 and using social media to spread information favorable to Donald Trump. Then, trying to discredit the election of Joe Biden in 2016, according to a US investigation.

The American intelligence also accused Iran of having launched a secret campaign of disinformation to try to avoid the election of Trump in the last electoral cycle, due to his policy of total pressure against Tehran. bots”, automated accounts on social networks or through teams of “human” experts who control several profiles at the same time – or even by a mixture of these two resources.

They try so hard to give visibility to a specific narrative, how much to denounce content of political rivals en masse, to be excluded by the algorithms of social networks.

One of the most sophisticated of these teams is the IRA (acronym for Internet Research Agency) , which became popularly known as the “St. Petersburg Troll Factory”, supposedly linked to the government Russian. It would have about 80 operators and a monthly budget of $1.2 million.

According to analysts, in addition to acting in the American election campaign, the Troll Factory would have carried out disinformation actions in the Brexit process (Britain’s exit from the European Union in 2020, approved in a referendum in 2015), in a referendum in the Netherlands in 2015 and in the German elections of 2015. It was even the target of offensive cyber actions by the United States.

According to the report by 2016 of the Program for Democracy and Technology at the University of Oxford, the number of countries where companies similar to Fábrica de Trolls operate in disinformation campaigns rose from nine in 2016 to 19 in 2020 – including Brazil. The university makes no distinction, however, whether the actions in these countries came from national groups or from other nations.

How is Brazil?

O Brazil has defense systems against cyber attacks subordinated to the Institutional Security Office, the Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces. The idea is to protect mainly critical infrastructure, strategic military equipment and command and control structures.

The country is not involved in geopolitical conflicts, which reduces the possibility of cyber attacks by foreign nations.

However, according to analysts, nations very close already have offensive capabilities for cyber conflict, such as Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and Mexico. In most cases, the artifacts are used in the fight against organized crime, but, in theory, it is not possible to guarantee that they will not be used in other contexts in the future.

Brazilian public security forces already made contact with companies supplying artifacts and infrastructure for cyber offensive actions. But there is no public information that the technology has been acquired.

Judiciary authorities are currently investigating the origin and legality of alleged disinformation campaigns in Brazil. But in general, the cyber threats that most concern citizens and businesses come from common crime, such as ransonware (blocking computer networks for extortion) and phishing (hacking computers for data theft).