Quite a while back, I spoke about the emergence of geek gangs.
At that time, I made this comment:
If you establish the concept of gangs in cyberspace, eventually, you’re bound to get some gangs with more discipline and less laudable leadership.
If a handful of hackers can paralyze major systems, what could a hundred or a thousand, located all over the world, do? If such a group decided to go after an “enemy” electronically, how much havoc could they wreak?
We are seeing the first inklings of this, with a political twist.
Right now, the American and Chinese hackers are taking whacks at each other, as summarized here, but this is far from
the first instance of politically-motivated defacing of websites. For instance, Israelis and Palestinian groups have been going at each other for some time.
This brings up two thoughts: namely, the foreign policy implications of geek gangs, and the degree to which they could be used as an irregular element in political foreign policy.
In the case of the Americans, this looks to be a brainless assertion of “you suck, we rule.”
“Get ready to meet a strike force with strength the world has never seen before! We are going for all out cyber warfare on your .gov.cn boxes and every other box that you … haven’t secured! Hold onto your boots because many will fall to the wrath of the blood bath!”
This sounds like somebody trash-talking before a Quake match. There’s no real political consciousness there. Chinese, Latvians, Ferrengi, makes no real difference.
Unfortunately, the Chinese don’t quite look upon it that way. To them, this is not a teenage defiance of authority, but a political act and a national insult.
“You suck, we rule” is not considered a childish taunt to a nation that has historically believed that “they ruled,” often had pretty good reason to think that, and has some pretty good reason to think it will happen again. It hits a raw nerve.
When the Internet lets the American dogs out, and they promise to mess up a Chinese governmental website, the Chinese don’t realize the attackers would wish to do exactly the same thing to an American equivalent. This is like spitting on the flag.
An additional complication is what is probably the widespread belief that the American activity is somehow sanctioned or approved by the U.S. government. It’s a matter of projection; if we need an OK, so must they. Or its corollary, if they didn’t like it, they’d stop it.
Most probably don’t understand how the most powerful government in the world can’t stop its own people from doing many things it doesn’t want them to do. They don’t understand that George W. can destroy the world, but can’t stop a six-year-old from giving him the finger.
While we should not exaggerate the political impact of this, teenage trash-talking stirs up the pot more than you might think, even when the trash-talkers are oblivious to unintentioned impact.
Like so much else, the Internet didn’t create the opportunity for its citizens to embarrass the U.S. government. It just makes it a lot easier.
If political actions can be taken accidentally, imagine what can be done when they’re done deliberately.
If you are a political group, particularly a fairly powerless one, you can get considerable political work done for the cause at virtually no risk. It’s a lot easier to blow up a website than a building, and a lot safer. Even just defacing a website can get your cause a lot of publicity, and any group can easily disown the actions of a bunch of kids.
I’m not too sure this is all applicable to China; I really don’t see the Chinese attacks as something being directly controlled by “the government”, at least not so far.
The kinds of actions being taken so far are the kinds of things groups of kids do.
While propaganda is rarely better than crude, I have problems seeing some eighty-year old Minister of Propaganda in China dictating the following to some teen:
“The Great Chinese Nation Hooray! USA Will Be With Responsibility for the Accident Totally!!! Protest USA sell Weapon to Taiwan, Break The World Peace!!! USA IS BITCH!”
The kid obviously has been influenced by more adult forces, but the same would be true of his American counterpart. He’s certainly put his own lingual spin on it.
I don’t think this in-and-of-itself is meant as a serious cyberattack, but at worst, it might prove to be good reconnaissance and practice at minimal risk and effort should a real attack be needed in the future. It might be a smokescreen for more serious hacking activity.
Or it could be just as much an embarrassment to the higher Chinese governmental authorities as their American counterparts are to Washington. They may well have opened Pandora’s Box, and can’t shut it back up right away. It may reflect conflict between ruling factions. Or it might just be some hardline middle-level official with some sympathetic bosses bucking for a promotion. Don’t assume a perfectly-operating monolithic government.
If I’m seriously preparing for some future cyberwar against America, the last thing in the world I want is anything that puts my target on alert.
But immediate political advantage can overrule long-term strategic concerns in any government, and that’s what I think is happening. Some politicos someplace think it’s a good idea for them right now to let this happen. That doesn’t mean those with the actual responsibility are running the show. This is a quasi-Communist country, not the Borg.
There may be some puppeteers pulling on a few strings, and that’s at least important for future efforts by others down the road.
What most strikes me about this is the juvenile gang nature of this. You got two groups trying to jump on each other’s turf, posturing all the way. The Chinese might not have the latest talk down, but you can see they’re coming from the same place.
Like it or not, these are new ambassadors to the world, and whether they’re boobs abroad or geek guerillas, they’ll cause trouble.