Health + Tech /24 Jun 2017
06.24.17

How Cybersecurity has Changed International Relations

Historically, nations have always known who their enemies are. While tense, these relationships weren’t usually any more complicated than Red vs. Blue.

Today, instead of outright attacks, large nations conduct their business exclusively through proxies. Until recently this meant waging wars in third-world countries; now some of that is entering the realm of “cyberwarfare.”

Where does cybersecurity figure in international relations? Issues have been raised on topics ranging from Hillary Clinton’s e-mails to Donald Trump and Russian “influence” over the elections, and the Chinese. All nations from the US to North Korea police or at the very least spy on the online activities of their citizens. The interplay between searching for threats and invading personal privacy is an issue that can’t be ignored forever.

Here’s where things are currently headed.

The Strangest Game

Largely because countries fear nuclear weapons, direct war is has been ruled out between superpowers (or at least those with nuclear weapons). The Cold War was the first example of the awkward transition into the modern era as the United States and the former Soviet Union butted heads across the globe, unwilling to directly fight with one another.

Transition into a world where everything is based on computers and functions as part of a network has led to countries using stolen data and subterfuge rather than physical force. The most obvious example of this is the United States 2016 election.

Whether or not there was foreign involvement in the election results is beside the point; countless foreign financial interests are always interfering with elections (Israel, for example, is influential in the States). The point is how foreign powers are participating in elections.

If Russia was involved, the likely path was through spreading information or misinformation online. This can be done either by hacking and stealing data from political figures that could be disadvantageous if exposed or just by making up facts. Loading up tons of posts on social media today is akin to publishing a major news story just a few decades ago.

Is this enough to change the results in a political race? It certainly could be. Clever marketing coupled with an understanding of the system can easily outpace expensive political campaigning.

Government Hackers

Many of us don’t have a very clear understanding of hacking. However, the government uses those with hacking skills to sabotage foreign powers. Two examples come to mind. The former is supported by solid evidence and the latter less so.

Back in 2010, the US released a virus against the Iranians that’s since has been dubbed Stuxnet. That goal was to sabotage their nuclear program and prolong or prevent them from acquiring nuclear power. Unfortunately for the US, the virus did its job a little too well and was quickly discovered. But it showed the world just how significant cyber threats could become and served to further sour relations (as if they weren’t bad enough).

The second, less clear instance of government hacking is related to North Korea. This more recent incident, dubbed “WannaCry,” seems to be linked in origin to the Lazarus group and, by extension, North Korea. Suspicions of involvement in this major financial hack have led national governments to undertake their own investigations. No proper allegations have been made yet, but we expect that cybersecurity companies’ suspicions of North Korea aren’t unfounded, especially given their generally hostile attitude toward most of the world.

Private Problems

International relations aren’t just conducted through governments. We interact with foreign nationals on a daily basis through the internet. Perhaps none are more infamous in cybersecurity than the Nigerians.

Made famous first by the classic “Nigerian Prince” e-mail scam, cybercriminals from Nigeria continue to perpetuate similar and more advanced schemes online even today. Two of the most common include catfishing and fraudulent checks.

Catfish

The first is a new sort of con where the criminal party pretends to initiate a virtual relationship with the target party with the goal of extracting something beneficial, especially cash. Some of these cases have been made famous on the “Dr. Phil Show.” The scheme is that someone from Nigeria uses a stolen identity to build their false persona.

This is a major problem from an international relations standpoint because most Nigerians aren’t internet scammers. But the publicity and frequency by which internet users are exposed to these scams create the unrealistic picture of a nation filled with criminals.

Fraudulent Checks

Though fraudulent checks haven’t changed, their method of delivery now reflects a strategy unique to the internet. The victim is offered excess money for a product or service in the form of a check, with the understanding that they will deposit the extra money in the conman’s bank account. Unfortunately, by the time the victim realizes the check is fraudulent, they’ve already withdrawn the money from their own account and deposited it elsewhere. The bank then holds the withdrawer responsible for the unavailable funds.

It should be noted that many of these criminal acts stem from poor cybersecurity in general. Stolen identities tend to be a major component of successful cons, many of which are the result of private users with inadequate security on their devices; VPNs, for instance, prevent quite a few basic hacking strategies by obscuring the user’s IP address which is used to identify them.

Problems on the Horizon

With cybersecurity issues becoming more threatening every day, it’s doubtful we’ll see any major improvements in international relations. If anything, integration with technology will no doubt breed additional problems for us to solve.

Perhaps the only comfort is the lack of teeth behind most politicians. They might talk a good game, but they don’t seem too eager to do anything rash when the crime is only data related.

If you're interested in writing for International Policy Digest - please send us an email via submissions@intpolicydigest.org