The recent and rather public hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton Campaign has been widely attributed to Russia. While Moscow has denied responsibility, the Clinton campaign has blamed Russian intelligence. One of the more concerning elements of the breach is that while being warned of the intrusion in April by the security consulting firm CrowdStrike, the hackers had been inside of the DNC’s servers for a year. While this inevitably raises questions around the cyber maturity of the DNC it also points to the reality that the networks operated by other political and diplomatic actors have also likely been breached. The people who depend on these networks for the carriage of their private communications will now need to develop new capability to detect and mitigate against these sorts of targeted intrusions.
Political parties, diplomats and businesses have all been on the receiving end of targeted and likely state sponsored efforts to compromise communications. This reality, will undoubtedly impact on political, diplomatic and economic events within the countries where these attacks are targeted. North Korea, in one particularly interesting hack, probably impacted the level of free speech within the entertainment industry. Regardless the origin the hack, it has had an identifiable effect seen during the decisions of organizations to pull the release of the movie ‘The Interview’ after the hack. Subsequent to this, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York cancelled the release of the documentary ‘Under The Sun’ due to fear of potential retribution by North Korea. As such, even without direct confirmation of a state sponsored attach, the impact is undeniable.
Authoritarian states are likely to continue to use cyber security as a mechanism for pressing their case. As the hack of the DNC shows, the exposure of information can likely impact the electoral process. Picking the correct information to release at an opportune moment could be a method of influencing people’s decision making. Given that democracy entails individual decision making the ability of information to sway polls and the lack of cyber maturity in non-government organizations like the DNC, there is clear advantage here to the authoritarian actor.
The reality of the hacks was grasped by Tom Kellerman, CEO of Strategic Cyber Ventures, when he stated “This has all the hallmarks of tradecraft. The only rationale to release such data from the Russian bulletproof host was to empower one candidate against another. The Cold War is alive and well.” Alarmism around the Cold War aside, a significant amount of tracked hacking activity originates from within authoritarian states. China has been particularly effective in normalizing its hacking activity at an international level.
While authoritarian states have attempted to normalize hacking activity, it does not mean that this works universally, or even primarily, to their advantage. Democratic institutions can be influenced by the targeted intrusions of political parties. Entertainment companies can be cowed by threats of hacking. However, authoritarian states have the most to lose from the unpredictable transparency of hacking. We have seen the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) hacked but if someone were to release the private financial information of authoritarian leader’s states at opportune moments, this might well collapse their governments. This is due to the fact that the democratic process, combined with a free and activist press does produce mechanisms for developing accountability that simply aren’t present within authoritarian states. Much of the governance within authoritarian states requires the opaque exercise of authority and the financial information of authoritarian leaders is likely just as susceptible to compromise as the servers of the DNC.
The norms of cyber security have developed a level of acceptance of day to day hacking. Looking at an attack map, such as this one operated by Norse Corp show shows just how regular attempted intrusions are. These efforts are favoring the regular hacking of democratic states but over time this could lead to negative outcomes for authoritarian states. The lack of access to information and the ability to restrict that flow is a vital aspect of authoritarian control. States like China have security infrastructure such as the Golden Shield Project (otherwise known as the Great Firewall of China) which gives the government the power to restrict citizen’s access to information. In an environment where intrusion is normalized, the vital security architecture, and the communications which relate to enforcing state control, upon which authoritarian states depend could be subject to compromise.
This reality has created a potential paradox of the normalization of cyber security intrusion. While states like Russia and China have benefited from hacking and these efforts have been shown to have measurable impacts, the game does not favor those states. The structure of authoritarian states is subject to a level of vulnerability to hacking. The potential to disrupt states by targeting institutions and security infrastructure unique authoritarian states means that, structurally speaking, they probably have more to fear than democracies.