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How to start a war from your bedroom

China and Vietnam are angrily pointing fingers at each other over a territorial spat which has seen ships from the two countries (survey vessels and fishing trawlers) sparring with each other in the South China Sea.

It is a phoney war – or at least a dispute with limited consequences – that is being conducted on three fronts: first, the war of words; second, the war at sea (Vietnam says a Chinese trawler snipped the cables of one of its survey ships, China says one of its trawlers was dragged backwards by another Vietnamese survey ship); and third, the war in cyberspace, in which hackers from both countries have targeted government websites.

It is the last of these that perhaps should give pause for thought.

The hacking has been pretty harmless: what are presumed to be Chinese nationalist groups posted Chinese flags on Vietnamese government websites with a message claiming the disputed islands (Spratly/Nansha) “belong to China, in the past and the future”. Vietnamese hackers appear to have done similarly.

It’s not clear these hackers were acting on behalf of their governments, or freelancing, or just being tolerated, but it occurs to me that these hackers represent the possibility of a new dimension when it comes to precipitating war.

There are “state actors” (ie governments), “non-state actors” (like al-Qaeda, say) and now, it seems, a third group, “non-state actors acting covertly for State actors” or, as a sub-set, “non-state actors acting for the State, but without the state’s permission”.

Sorry if that sounds all a bit Don Rumsfeld, but these issues are becoming increasingly pressing with the US calling in Singapore last week for a comprehensive international dialogue to try and establish a Geneva Convention for cyberwarfare, or if that’s too grand an idea, then at least some basic ground rules.

Discussions (see here) are already actively taking place about what would constitute sufficiently grave cyber war activity to merit a real-world military response. The White House has released an international cybersecurity doctrine promising to use “all necessary means” to respond to cyberthreats.

It seems clear that knocking out power-stations or crippling a nation’s financial sectors probably would; phishing a few Gmail accounts or trying to steal secrets from Lockheed Martin would not.

The really scary part is the room for misunderstanding, given the ultimate deniability of cyberattacks.

You could argue for a law of ultimate responsibility – ie if it happens on your soil, then you take the consequences – but in the nature of hacking, it’s possible hackers could take “offensive” actions without their government’s approval.

The West is often quick, for example, to presume (the recent Google statement being a case in point) that China’s government is either behind hack attacks, or tolerates/tacitly endorses them. China’s denials are usually met with outright scoffs or knowingly arched eyebrows.

However the ongoing South China Sea spats (last year it was Japan, then the Philippines, now Vietnam) are a good example of where sections of China’s public are sometimes more militant than its government.

It’s impossible to say whether the attacks on the Vietnamese websites are government-backed or not, but if not, they represent the intrusion of arm-chair freelances in the China’s foreign policy. Who knows, perhaps these hacks have already hardened minds in the Vietnamese foreign ministry? Or further hardened public opinion against China in Vietnam? And, of course, vice-versa on the Chinese side.

China’s nationalists believe their government, with its lily-livered (as they see it) talk of “non-interference” and “peaceful rise”  is far too cautious, urging their leaders to stand up to foreign forces that would contain China and ensure China punches its weight as a coming superpower.

One of the best-selling books of recent times, “Unhappy China” (reviews here) was a collection of nationalist opinions that was officially dismissed on Xinhua as “embarrassing and unconstructive”.

It might seem like Hollywood fantasy now, but the world of freelance nationalist hacking already opens the possibility that citizens unhappy with their government’s more moderate stance could take matters into their own hands. For now, it is just a few denial of service attacks (like that China-based hack against the Nobel committee site last year) or the posting of national flags and rude messages on another government’s websites – but what next?

Filed in: World News

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