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MIT Technology Review

Hackers will be the weapon of choice for governments in 2020

From the Olympics to elections, nations use hackers to win a bigger geopolitical game.

conceptual illustration of cyber attacks on a map of the worldconceptual illustration of cyber attacks on a map of the world
conceptual illustration of cyber attacks on a map of the worldBenedikt Luft

When Russia was recently banned from the Olympics for another four years in a unanimous decision from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the instant reaction from Moscow was anger and dismissal. Now the rest of the world is waiting to see how Russia will retaliate this time.

In the history books, 2016 will forever be known for unprecedented Russian interference into an American presidential election, but until that transpired, one of the most aggressive cyber campaigns that year centered on the Olympics. In the run-up to the summer games in Brazil, WADA had uncovered a national Russian doping conspiracy and recommended a ban. In response, Moscow’s most notorious hackers targeted an array of international officials and then leaked both real and doctored documents in a propaganda push meant to undermine the recommendation. The International Olympic Committee rejected a blanket ban and allowed each sport to rule individually. 

Next, the opening ceremony of the 2018 winter games in South Korea kicked off with all the traditional optimism, bright lights, and pageantry—plus a targeted cyberattack known as Olympic Destroyer that was designed to sabotage the networks and devices at the event. The attack’s origins were obfuscated, with breadcrumbs in the malware pointing to North Korea and China—but after investigators untangled the attempts to mislead them, it became apparent that some of the Russian government’s most experienced hackers were behind it. In a series of angry blog posts, the hackers charged that “on the pretext of defending clean sport,” what they described as “the Anglo-Saxon Illuminati” were fighting for “power and cash in the sports world.” It was clear that the Russians viewed the Olympics as one part of a larger world power competition, and looked to hacking as a weapon of choice. Almost nothing has been done to hold anyone responsible.

Indeed, as a new crop of books expertly explain, cyber capabilities are expanding and transforming the old game of statecraft. The Russians are playing right alongside the Americans, Chinese, Iranians, North Koreans, and others in using hackers to shape history and try to bend geopolitics to their will.

“Over two decades, the international arena of digital competition has become ever more aggressive,” writes Ben Buchanan, a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, in his upcoming The Hacker and the State. “The United States and its allies can no longer dominate the field the way they once did. Devastating cyber attacks and data breaches animate the fierce struggle among states.”

With an academic’s eye, Buchanan compares and contrasts the emerging tactics with the traditional ways of military conflict, nuclear competition, and espionage to make some sense of the new age. The book dissects how governments use cyberattacks to fundamentally “change the state of play” by “stacking the deck or stealing an opponent’s card for one’s own use.” The Americans have a long history of exploiting their “home field advantage” to this effect, using the country’s giant tech and telecom companies as well as its central position in the internet’s infrastructure to enable cyber operations that have helped fight its wars and win rounds of negotiations at the United Nations.

Meanwhile, Sandworm, a new book by journalist Andy Greenberg, zeroes in on multiple interrelated Russian hacking groups responsible not only for the sprawling campaign against the Olympics but for an impossibly long list of headline-making hacks. They turned the lights out in Ukraine by breaking into utilities, broke into the Democratic National Committee in America, and brought hospitals, ports, giant corporations, and government agencies to their knees with a piece of malware called NotPetya. This debacle illustrates the big and unanswered questions defining the new era: What are the rules? What are the consequences? 

Although it may seem as if cyberattacks target mainly networks and computers, conflict on the internet can affect every human being both directly—when, for example, medical equipment is compromised—and indirectly, by forcefully reshaping the geopolitical reality we’re all living in.

“Today, the full scale of the threat Sandworm and its ilk present loom over the future,” Greenberg writes. “If cyberwar escalation continues unchecked, the victims of state-sponsored hacking could be on a trajectory for even more virulent and destructive works. The digital attacks first demonstrated in Ukraine hint at a dystopia on the horizon, one where hackers induce blackouts that last days, weeks, or even longer—intentionally inflicted deprivations of electricity that could mirror the American tragedy of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, causing vast economic harm or even loss of life.” 

As we start a new decade, the most immediate threat in the minds of many Americans is—once again—election interference. The 2020 election threatens to move forward the pattern of escalation that began when Barack Obama’s campaign was hacked in 2008, and spiked when Donald Trump became the first to directly benefit from hacking by a foreign power. Hacker States, an upcoming book by the British academics Luca Follis and Adam Fish, distinguishes between the different dimensions of destruction. Whether or not a hack achieves a specific technical goal—malware installed, account taken over, data breached—it can undermine public confidence and democracy.

“It is not just about tampering, information warfare, or influence campaigns, but it is also about the very physical infrastructures and complex systems responsible for everything from healthcare to tallying votes,” Follis and Fish write. 

“In the 2016 US presidential elections, Russian hackers targeted the electronic voting systems of more than one hundred local elections. Even when the tampering is not successful or when damning information is not exfiltrated, the suspicion generated by the discovery of malicious code (or reports of systems penetration) speaks to a new conspiratorial and anxious politics, in which the question of democratic legitimacy is left open and unanswered.”

Perhaps the most useful preview of the 2020 election will be, once again, the Olympics. The 2020 summer games will be held in Tokyo, and the Russians have already put a bull’s-eye on the event with several successful hacks on relevant organizations. Despite a spotlight on their activities, there have been virtually no consequences for what the Russians did to the Olympics in the past four years, so a repeat performance is a distinct possibility. 

The last decade was marked by nations harnessing the power of hacking to win wars, elections, and any other fight they chose. World powers will continue using this distinctly 21st-century weapon to shape politics to their advantage. In both the Olympic Games and elections, even the smallest advantage makes a world of difference.

It’s clear that fights on both of those fronts are already well under way.