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Rethinking Cyber warfare: Strategic Implications for United States and China

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“Every age had its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions.”Carl von Clausewitz

Internet has transformed the front lines of war. Modern conflicts are now waged online in cyberspace. World Wide Web (WWW) has eradicated all physical borders and defences, without which weak and powerful states are all prone to attacks. Concurring to this pretext, a number of countries have formally recognized cyber as the new domain of warfare in their strategy papers and documents. United States and China are the master players in this realm having military units active, with sophisticated state of art capabilities dedicated to cyber strikes. The consequences are dire, for the sole superpower, and for the rising economic giant which is projected to take over the former by 2025.

The dynamic nature of cyber warfare has caused frustration in the inner circles of Washington and Beijing. Both the public and the private sector have been targeted. The former to get hands on state secrets and latter for intellectual property rights. According to an estimate by US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM), it has cost the American economy $338 billion, an amount closer to the entire Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Pakistan. China on the other hand leads the Asia-Pacific region in cyber losses which incurs the country an annual estimated loss of $60 billion.

Next Generation Warfare

There is a surge seen in cyber attacks against the US. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and National Security Agency (NSA) at multiple times have came under attack. This is followed by Silicon Valley tech giants, such as Netflix, Twitter and Spotify who on numerous occasions have been taken down by cyber attackers. It is very difficult to trace the identity and origin of the attack, as various techniques like changing Internet Protocol (IP) cannot only hide identity of attacker but misattribute it to other nations. Cyber security analysts working in their private capacity have collected evidence that seems indicate China as the alleged perpetrator of recent waves of cyber-attacks.

However, cyber pundits have openly stated that they cannot guarantee with a hundred percent accuracy that the evidence collected in wake of cyber-attacks is authentic and not planted by perpetrators to seem to look genuine. In cyberspace. An attack could be from anywhere around the globe. It could be from friends and foes alike, anyone can attack and make it look like an attack came from China or other adversary. In the past, cyberattackers from France bypassed into secured servers stealing classified information relating to American products and designs. Added to that, it is an expensive and difficult task to analyze these attacks. To know that you have been attacked or infiltrated is itself a big achievement. Considering that, it take days or even months to find that your security has been compromised. It took seven months for security analyst to find the Stuxnet virus that was hiding itself into a legitimate Siemens software responsible for controlling centrifuges at nuclear power plants around the world. According to an estimate starting rates for analyzing and identifying cyber attacks start from $650 dollars per hour, which often end up towards an uncertain conclusions.

Philippe Goldstein author of Babel Zero argues that attacking against a wrong adversary would be catastrophic. A troublesome scenario, where attacks in cyberspace can be met with conventional and even nuclear culminating a “Cyber Armageddon”. It is this reason that states have taken cyber warfare seriously and synonymous to national security. China has incorporated cyber command structure within its armed forces, under the“Three Warfare strategy.”

Cybersecurity analysts have called minuet “cyber bullets” as ‘Cyber weapons of Mass Destruction.’ All one needs is ‘bad timings, bad decision making and some bad luck!’ and you can end up having a World War III which was 24/7 nightmare of Cold War veterans. The world is not immune from such attacks. Anyone having an access to any computing device, from iPods to digital smart watches, having right technical skills can cause a national security crisis. This is well depicted in John Badham’s film, WarGames where a young hacker unknowingly sets a US military supercomputer to launch nuclear weapons on the former Soviet Union. Few years back, an attack on FBI’s website resulted in leaking of classified data caused alarm bells in Washington. Later it was found out the perpetrator was a 15 year old school boy from Glasgow, Scotland.

The way forward for states remains cumbersome in the absence of legal framework from the United Nations (UN). Further complications arise when the attack is orchestrated by a non-state actor or private individual from a particular state. Recent debates among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members have arisen in the wake of alleged Russian sponsored cyber activities against Europe and America whether the collective defence measures under Article 5 would apply to a cyber-attack.

Cyber security is a relatively new introduction in war studies. The US Department of Defence (DOD) recognized cyber warfare, as the fifth domain of warfare following land, sea, air and outer space. There are around 30 countries that have dedicated cyber military units, whereas more than 140 countries have or are in developing stages to acquire cyber weapons. Cyber is the means by which countries irrespective of their financial standing can acquire to further states objectives. US and China are considered advanced states in cyber realm, having cyber military technology and capabilities that are rarely matched by other contenders. Therefore, studying their way of cyber dealings, strategies and policy making would allow other countries such as Pakistan to better able to understand the dynamics and nature of this new type of warfare. India has tasked the Defence Cyber Agency (DCA), presently headed by a two-star Admiral which reports directly to Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CCSC). DCA is presently undertaking to prepare a Cyber warfare doctrine for India. The repercussions of the developments are critical for Pakistan, which require a comprehensive safety and information guideline to be prepared for the masses. 

Zaeem Hassan Mehmood is PhD scholar International Relations & Political Science at Greenwich University. He has a Masters of Philosophy in Strategic Studies from National Defence University Islamabad. He was associated in the capacity of Research Analyst with the National Institute of Maritime Affairs (NIMA), a center of excellence established by Government of Pakistan to provide policy guidelines to address various challenges in the maritime industry. During this time, he was an Associate Editor for Maritime Watch, Pakistan’s first monthly news digest on maritime affairs. His writings have appeared on reputed national and international policy platforms including Austral: Brazilian Journal of Strategy & International Relations, Malaysian Journal of International Relations and Andalas Journal of International Studies. Zaeem serves as a reviewer for International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. He can be reached at zhmehmood42[at]gmail.com

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USA and Australia Worry About Cyber Attacks from China Amidst Pegasus Spyware

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Pegasus Spyware Scandal has shaken whole India and several other countries. What will be its fallout no one knows as we know only tip of iceberg. Amidst Pegasus Spyware Scandal USA and Australia both have shown serious concerns about Cyber Attacks on US and Australian interests. Both say that China is hub of malware software and both face millions of such attacks daily.

I am trying to understand why a software is needed to spy on a particular individual when all calls, messages, data, emails are easily accessible from server. In most of cases these servers are located in USA and some cases these are located in host country. In certain sensitive cases Government Agencies have their own server like Central Intelligence Agency and hundreds of other agencies and military establishment world over including India. Now point is who installs those servers.

A couple of years back I had talked to Mr Mike Molloy who is Chief Executive Officer of Orion Global Technologies previously known as Orion SAS. He had explained me how his company installs servers in host countries on request of private or gov bodies. He talks about contract and trust. That means even when a company or Gov buys a server or software for designated uses the “Secrecy” Factor remain on discretion of company which has supplied server or software.

Now  if all data, e-mail, chat, messages, calls are accessible to Gov as per law and technology (Through Server all components of Communication are accessible and thats why  me and you see start seeing call recording of a person even after many years later), I am unable to understand why a Gov will be needing a software to Spy on any one.

Now coming to where Australia and USA wants to carry the whole debate.

Australian Foreign Minister Sen Marise Payne said, “Australian Government joins international partners in expressing serious concerns about malicious cyber activities by China’s Ministry of State Security.

“In consultation with our partners, the Australian Government has determined that China’s Ministry of State Security exploited vulnerabilities in the Microsoft Exchange software to affect thousands of computers and networks worldwide, including in Australia. These actions have undermined international stability and security by opening the door to a range of other actors, including cybercriminals, who continue to exploit this vulnerability for illicit gain”, She further added.

She opined, ”The Australian Government is also seriously concerned about reports from our international partners that China’s Ministry of State Security is engaging contract hackers who have carried out cyber-enabled intellectual property theft for personal gain and to provide commercial advantage to the Chinese Government”.

She warned China by saying, “Australia calls on all countries – including China – to act responsibly in cyberspace.  China must adhere to the commitments it has made in the G20, and bilaterally, to refrain from cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, trade secrets and confidential business information with the intent of obtaining competitive advantage”.

On other hand USA’s The National Security Agency (NSA), Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released a Cybersecurity Advisory on Chinese State-Sponsored Cyber Operations. National Security Advisor said, ”Chinese state-sponsored cyber activity poses a major threat to U.S. and allied systems. These actors aggressively target political, economic, military, educational, and critical infrastructure personnel and organizations to access valuable, sensitive data. These cyber operations support China’s long-term economic and military objectives”.

The information in this advisory builds on NSA’s previous release “Chinese State-Sponsored Actors Exploit Publicly Known Vulnerabilities.” The NSA, CISA, and FBI recommended mitigations empower our customers to reduce the risk of Chinese malicious cyber activity, and increase the defensive posture of their critical networks. 

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Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geopolitical blocs

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pakistan-terrorism

Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini  and Varundeep Singh*

On July 14, 2021 a terror attack was carried out in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province in which a number of Chinese engineers, working on the Dasu hydropower project (a project which is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor) were killed. The attack predictably evinced a strong response from China. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi speaking before a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Foreign Minister’s meeting asked the Taliban to disassociate itself from ‘terrorist elements’ and in a meeting with Pakistan Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, asked Pakistan to bring the perpetrators to book. Earlier in April 2021, a car bomb attack took place at Serena hotel in Quetta which was hosting China’s Ambassador to Pakistan (four people were killed and twelve were injured)

Wang Yi significantly praised the Ashraf Ghani government, for its attempts towards building national unity and providing effective governance. Beijing clearly realizes that its economic investments in the country as well as big ticket infrastructural projects can not remain safe if there is no security. Afghanistan also criticized Pakistan for its role in sending 10000 Jihadis to Taliban, this is important in the context of the region’s geopolitics.

 Like all other countries, Beijing and Islamabad, would have expected uncertainty after the US withdrawal of troops but perhaps over estimated their capabilities in dealing with the turbulence which had been predicted by many.

Importance of Chinese Foreign Minister’s statements

Wang Yi’s statements are important because days earlier a Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen had praised China and welcomed its role in the country’s reconstruction. He had also assured China that those involved in the insurgency in Xinjiang would not be given refuge in Afghanistan (one of China’s major concerns has been the support provided by Taliban to the East Turkmenistan movement)

While Beijing may have opened back channels with the Taliban and realized that it needs to adapt to the changing geopolitics, recent developments would have increased its skepticism vis-à-vis the Taliban. On the other hand, Russia has been more favorable towards the Taliban. Russia’s Deputy Chief of Mission in India, Roman Babushkin argued that the Taliban are a reality which needs to be accepted, and also that any military activities without a political process are insufficient.

Babushkin did make the point that for successful negotiations, Taliban needed to end violence.

‘that Taliban should deal with the problem of terrorism and other related issues in order to become legitimate, in order to [get] delisted [at the UN Security Council], in order to go ahead with the future Afghanistan and creation of the inclusive government

It would be pertinent to point out, that Zamir Kabulov, Russian President’s Afghanistan envoy went a step further and said that the Afghan government was not doing enough to make talks with Taliban a success.

China’s statements subtle warning to the Taliban, indicating its reservations, and praise of Ghani indicate a possibility of greater understanding between Washington and Beijing (even though Beijing has repeatedly attributed the current troubles in Afghanistan to Washington’s decision to withdraw troops).

Can US and China find common ground

 It remains to be seen if Biden who has exhibited dexterity on a number of complex issues reaches out to Xi Jinping to find common ground with regard to Afghanistan. Significantly, while US-Turkey relations had witnessed a downward trajectory and Biden has been critical of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and Human rights record, both leaders met on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in June 2021. During the meeting Turkey agreed to secure Kabul Airport. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan while commenting on Turkey’s assurance said

‘The clear commitment from the leaders was established that Turkey would play a lead role in securing Hamid Karzai International Airport, and we are now working through how to execute to get to that,’

Taliban earlier this week warned Turkey of ‘consequences’ if the Middle Eastern nation increased its troop presence in Afghanistan.

Conclusion

Russia’s statements with regard to the Taliban indicate that it is not totally on the same page as China (its prior experience in Afghanistan has made it more cautious and circumspect), and that the Afghan issue can not be understood from the simplistic lens of geo-political blocs and traditional lenses. All major stakeholders in Afghanistan, both within the region and outside, seem to be understandably befuddled by the turn of events. It is not just the US, but even China which would be worried not just from an economic stand point but the overall security implications of the turmoil in Afghanistan. The terror attack in KPK indicates that other CPEC related projects could also face threats from militant groups. Beijing would thus need to be quick to react to the overtures from the Taliban in order to secure its economic assets and lives of Chinese workers in neighbouring Pakistan.

 It is especially important for Washington, Beijing and other important stakeholders in the region to work together for dealing with the near term turbulence as well as long term challenges Afghanistan is likely to face.

*Varundeep Singh is an Independent Policy Analyst.

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Pegasus: Human rights-compliant laws needed to regulate spyware

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The UN human rights chief on Monday said the apparent widespread use of Pegasus spy software to illegally undermine the rights of those under surveillance, including journalists and politicians, was “extremely alarming” and confirmed “some of the worst fears” surrounding the potential misuse of such technology. 

“Various parts of the UN Human Rights system, including my own Office, have repeatedly raised serious concerns about the dangers of authorities using surveillance tools from a variety of sources supposed to promote public safety in order to hack the phones and computers of people conducting legitimate journalistic activities, monitoring human rights or expressing dissent or political opposition”, said High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in a statement

According to reports, the Pegasus data leak allegations which surfaced through a consortium of media organisations over the weekend, suggests widespread and continuing abuse of the software, which the manufacturers insist, is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists. 

The Pegasus malware infects electronic devices, enabling operators of the tool to obtain messages, photos and emails, record calls, and even activate microphones, according to the consortium’s reporting. The leak contains a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers which reportedly belong to those identified as people of interest, by clients of the company behind Pegasus, including some governments.  

‘Indispensable role’ 

Surveillance software has been linked to the arrest, intimidation and even killing of journalists and human rights defenders, according to the senior UN official.  

Reports of surveillance also trigger fear and cause people to censor themselves.   

“Journalists and human rights defenders play an indispensable role in our societies, and when they are silenced, we all suffer”, she said, reminding all States that surveillance measures can only be justified in narrowly defined circumstances when necessary and proportional to a legitimate goal.  

‘Deep intrusions’ 

Given that Pegasus spyware, “as well as that created by Candiru and others, enable extremely deep intrusions into people’s devices, resulting in insights into all aspects of their lives”, the UN rights chief underscored, “their use can only ever be justified in the context of investigations into serious crimes and grave security threats.” 

If recent allegations about the use of Pegasus are even partly true, she maintained that the “red line has been crossed again and again with total impunity”. 

‘Due diligence’ 

Companies developing and distributing surveillance technologies are responsible for avoiding human rights abuses, she said, and they must take immediate steps to mitigate and remedy the damage their products are causing, or contributing to, and carry out “human rights due diligence” to ensure that they no longer play a part in “such disastrous consequences” now, or in the future. 

States also have a duty to protect individuals from privacy rights abuses by companies, she added.  

One key step in this direction is for States to require by law that the businesses meet their human rights responsibilities by becoming more transparent in their design and use of products and by putting in place effective accountability mechanisms. 

Better regulation key 

Reports also confirm “the urgent need to better regulate the sale, transfer and use of surveillance technologies and ensure strict oversight and authorization.” 

Governments should not only immediately stop using surveillance technologies in ways that violate human rights, but also “take concrete actions” to protect against such invasions of privacy by “regulating the distribution, use and export of surveillance technology created by others”, the High Commissioner said.  

Without human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks, Ms. Bachelet upheld that there are “simply too many risks” that the tools could be used to intimidate critics and silence dissent.

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