CYBER POLITICS: A NEW DYNAMIC IN INTER-STATE RELATIONS

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 29 Jan 2010

Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra, Mumbai

The famous scientist Albert Einstein, while deeply perturbed by the use of nuclear weapons during the second world war, had lamented that though he could not predict the kind of weapons to be used in any probable third world war, he was sure the fourth world war, if the humanity survives after the third one, will be fought with stones. This Einsteinian prediction about complexities involved in future wars and their horrendous consequences could be well comprehended in recent times with the increasing use of different kinds of ‘weapons’ by the nations, among which the use and misuse of information technology is a prominent one. The recent US-Chinese brawl over the allegation of the largest search engine Google against the hacking its source codes has in fact widened the complex web of international politics with likely wide ranging socio-political and economic implications. While China out rightly denied any role in such cyber activities and accused the US of imposing diktats on other countries, the US has sought further explanation from China and some of the US based organisations have threatened to drag China to World Trade Organisation over the issue.

The issue came to the forefront on 12 January 2010 when the California based web search engine Google accused the Chinese government of accessing email accounts of its email holders in a ‘highly sophisticated’ attack. It threatened to withdraw its operations from China on this account. On 19 January 2020 Google postponed the launch of two Android phones in China. It needs mention that China has the largest number of population at about 350 million who use internet with a search engine market at about $1billion in last year. In this emerging market Google holds about one third of the share, only second to the Chinese Baidu which holds more than 60 per cent of the market. Google’s rise to prominence within a span of four years, as it opened its office in Beijing in 2006, is not a small feat. Its success story in the different setting of China was followed by other companies. Hence, the Google’s threat of withdrawal from China not only raised alarm about its business prospects in China, but also about bilateral trade between China and the US with implications for the world.

The US President Barack Obama declared that he is ‘troubled’ by the developments and the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton asked China to provide further information about its activities in the matter. Hillary Clinton stated, “We look to the Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review” of its cyber policies and activities. Chinese official daily Xinhua quoting a spokesman of the ministry of Information and Technology denied any charges of violation of cyber laws. It stated, “Accusation that the Chinese Government participated in cyber attack, either in an explicit or inexplicit way, is groundless and aims to denigrate China.” It accused the US of ‘double standards.’ China has claimed that it itself was the victim of cyber attacks. As per the Chinese daily “Official data shows more than one million IP addresses were under control by overseas sources,” and “more than 42,000 Chinese websites had been hacked last year alone.” Besides, China criticised the US of imposing its values on other countries. The official China Daily newspaper observed that the strategy of the US was “to exploit its advantages in internet funds, technology and marketing and export its politics, commerce and culture to other nations for political, commercial and cultural interests of the world’s only superpower.” The Chinese government spokesperson also pointed out that the Chinese law is not followed by many foreign companies including the IT ones, hence they invite attention from the authorities.

The situation may worsen with some of the US organisations threatening to approach WTO against China. The main US contention being that the Chinese authorities have committed cyber attacks by hacking the codes of Google engine, while the Chinese contention as stated above is it has not done any such thing, and whatever it has done, it is within the purview of its law. The problem is that the standoff between the two countries in these weeks when the global financial recession is showing signs of recovery may not only affect the political relations between the two countries, but also trade relations, thus affecting the global financial situation.

Recently there is the increasing trend of allegations by nations about their web servers having classified information being hacked by other nations. Recently India alleged that sensitive information from the ministries of foreign affairs and defence have been hacked from distant sources. With the increasing allegations as well threats of cyber warfare, it is undoubtedly an increasing factor of concern in international politics that the national rivalries will be reflected in cyber war fares. With the increasing use of information technology the millions of lines of programming instructions, known as source code, have become vulnerable to hackers. These hackers can be used by rivals, including rival nations, in stealing key instructions and copy them, thus making advantage of the opponent in information technology defunct. Besides, the attackers can make undetected changes to that code, and hence give themselves secret access to the activities of the company or the nation served by that company as well as its other customers. The complexity of software system created by thousands of engineers also makes it very difficult to be absolutely confident about security of any program. The rogue elements like terrorists have already used this complex nature of information technology in their activities and have increasingly shown their keenness to use it to further widen their operations.

The nations will likely no more engage in direct warfare but wars at other planes such as at subtle cyber plane. The use of cyber technology by nations to fight their rivals is certainly a novel development in international politics. This technology has become a new tool in the hands of nations to settle scores with each other. But it will have a dangerous potential of destruction not only of nations, but also of the humanity unless there is an attempt among nations to coordinate their cyber laws and develop coordinated mechanism to prevent misuse of the technology.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 29 Jan 2010.

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