After a (somewhat enforced) summer recess, The Cybersecurity and Geopolitical podcast returns with Ian Thornton-Trump (CISO at Cyjax) and Tristan de Souza taking a sweeping look at some of the main protagonists on the global stage right now: Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. Security magazine brings enterprise security and risk professionals this entertaining and illuminating podcast on the latest challenges and intriguing flashpoints within cybersecurity and the geopolitical landscape.
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This month, we will hear about cyber warfare, cyber mischief and more throughout the geopolitical landscape.
There has certainly been an increase in aggressive rhetoric since Vladimir Putin was re-elected as President of Russia in 2012, much of it directed at the USA. This has pushed many to reach for the Cold War analogy, but this is a mistake according to Tristan. Not least because we live in a distinctly multipolar world – with China firmly in the mix, if not yet the ascendancy – but also because the ways in which these powers face off against each other has changed. The battle arena is now firmly cyberspace.
Indeed, President Biden has warned that cyber war could lead to kinetic conflict, but as Ian points out, this is unlikely because of the sheer cost for both nations in an all-out physical confrontation. Proxy wars in Syria and Ukraine, on the other hand, are just fine. One interesting question that comes up in the podcast is that of the relative cost of cyber warfare for these nation-states. Is there less to lose for Russia and others in targeting the US, than there is in the US targeting them? Or is there just as much at risk – both economically and politically speaking – for all players in the Great Game, because they’re tied into the same, the only, system?
After its audacious hack of Microsoft, there appear to have been far fewer ramifications for China than there were for Russia in the wake of the attacks carried out by Kremlin-affiliated groups against the US. Why is this? The connections are concrete: there simply doesn’t seem to be the will. Tristan notes that many countries appear still to be operating with the view that global politics is a zero-sum game. For Russia, its targeting of the 2016 US elections, for example, was a way of taking the heat off its own beleaguered government and potentially undermining confidence in democracy in the bastion of that form of politics. China, however, appears to be suffering from hubris. There is very little political gain for Beijing in targeting US companies; it is only likely to bring it closer to conflict with the US.
In its 100th year, the CCP appears confident in holding onto power for many decades to come. As such, Ian suggests that state-sponsored actors are being given a freer rein than might otherwise have been the case were the Chinese administration more worried about its ability to stay in charge. There is a clear economic benefit to stealing Intellectual Property from global corporations, and if there are no negative political consequences, then it is unlikely it will stop happening.
Iran is another country in which you could expect longer term planning to be a possibility. A hybrid authoritarian government that has a figurehead above the melee of elections (albeit ones that most consider fatally flawed) who could provide a clear direction over spans much longer than regular democratic terms of government. Except, that in the case of Iran, this doesn’t seem to be what is happening. Sanctions are affecting the country dramatically; the nuclear issue is a particular thorn in the side of the administration in Tehran; and an internal struggle appears to be preventing the country’s cyber threat actors from targeting organizations and people outside the Iranian border. As Ian notes, an “internal insurgency [is] pulling a lot of the cyber threat internally”.
And what of North Korea: ravaged by COVID-19; apparently disinterested in testing any more missiles for the time being; a cyber capability, in Lazarus, that has drawn no warnings from the US intelligence establishment for some time. Are the hermit kingdom’s cyber days numbered? Unlikely, according to Tristan, because silence doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of action. It’s highly likely that Lazarus and various other North Korean state-affiliated hacking groups are actively attacking financial institutions and political organizations the world over to support the regime in Pyongyang.
Should we consider North Korea to be a full proxy of China, though? Is there an agreement in place that sees information passed from Pyongyang to Beijing? Is North Korea confident enough in its support from the superpower to the north that it would start a kinetic war? Both Ian and Tristan agree that this is possible, but unlikely, on all three counts. No doubt some information is passed between the two countries – probably one way more than the other; no doubt, North Korea is confident in being protected to some degree by China; but there is also no doubt that Xi Jinping and the CCP, as mentioned above, think long term. North Korea is clearly unstable. The likelihood of China standing by during (or allowing) a North Korean attack that hurts Beijing’s standing on the global stage is extremely low.
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