Episode 80: Biden's Dangerous Cyber Jingoism

The US President says it’s likely that hacker attacks will lead to a real war and that is something that scares me a lot.

In today’s episode of The Private Citizen, we talk about Joe Biden and his warning that “cyber war” will lead to real war soon. There’s also some very interesting feedback on more unfair YouTube censorship.

Please note: I’m getting my second SARS-CoV-2 vaccination shot next week. And since I’ve reacted pretty severely to the first vaccination and I’ve been switched from a second AstraZeneca shot to a BioNTech one, I think it’s possible that I might have side effects again. So if there are some irregularities with the release of next week’s show, it’s probably due to me having been unable to work for a day or two because of renewed side effects.


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Joe Biden’s Cyber Sabre-Rattling

On episode 60 of the show, I gave a short history of viruses, trojans and hacker attacks and the term “cyber war”. I also explained why I think it is a misnomer and what the crucial differences to actual war are. I did this because it was plain to me that governments around the world were ramping up agitation and propaganda and using the term “cyber war” as a foreign policy tool to threaten opponents. This effort was always spearheaded by the United States (chiefly in opposition to Russia but also concerning North Korea), but I could see an obvious increase since Joe Biden assumed the presidency. Now Biden has taken the next step in escalating tensions.

Joe Biden has warned that cyber attacks could escalate into a full-blown war as tensions with Russia and China mounted over a series of hacking incidents targeting US government agencies, companies and infrastructure.

Biden said on Tuesday that cyber threats including ransomware attacks “increasingly are able to cause damage and disruption in the real world. If we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach,” the president said in a speech at the Office for the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees 18 US intelligence agencies.

A number of recent hacks revealed the extent of US cyber vulnerability, ranging from extensive espionage breaches that have struck at the heart of government to ransomware attacks that have brought operations at an important oil pipeline and meat packing plants to a halt.

The Biden administration has accused the governments of Russia and China, or hackers based inside the two countries, of some of the attacks. US officials have warned that the administration would respond with a “mix of tools seen and unseen” actions, but cyber breaches have continued. Although he did not say who such a war might be fought against, Biden immediately name-checked Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, alleging that Russia was spreading misinformation ahead of the 2022 US midterm elections. “It’s a pure violation of our sovereignty,” he said.

At a June summit in Geneva, Biden personally warned Putin that the US would “respond with cyber” if the Russian state or Russian-based hackers targeted critical US infrastructure. The prohibited sectors spanned energy, healthcare, IT and commercial facilities, all of which have already allegedly been targeted by Russian hackers since the 2020 US elections. Others included transport, financial services and chemicals.

Biden stressed that cyber attacks were just one aspect of the growing threats facing the US, saying that there would be more developments in the next 10 years than in the past 50, placing a tremendous burden on the intelligence community. “It’s really going to get tougher,” he said.

You can read the transcript of the whole speech on the White House website. The most important statement, in all its jingoistic glory, is this one:

You know, we’ve seen how cyber threats, including ransomware attacks, increasingly are able to cause damage and disruption to the real world. I can’t guarantee this, and you’re as informed as I am, but I think it’s more likely we’re going to end up – well, if we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach of great consequence. And it’s increasing exponentially – the capabilities.

With other words: Biden things it’s more likely that a war – which we would have to assume would escalate to World War III with major superpowers like the US involved – will happen because of a hacker attack or a data breach not because of violation of territory, a nuclear launch or an assassination of an important leader.

Since Biden strikes me as a pretty braindead mouthpiece – just listen to him read out that speech – I assume that this actually comes from somewhere inside the neocon machinery of war that seems to run the US behind close doors. The DoD and the so-called “intelligence community” is using a speech by the President to put the world on notice here.

If what was said here was said in earnest than this means the President of the United States is ready, and willing, to plunge the world into a – possibly thermo-nuclear – war because of a future “cyber attack” that destroys some equipment, maybe wastes some resources but does not hurt a single person directly. That’s what he trivialises as “a shooting war” there. And they said Donald Trump was bad.

Haven’t these guys learned a lesson from their idiotic “War on Terror” and the longest war in US history which has led to untold death and destruction for what exactly? Biden has been in politics long enough to have witnessed both the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan – the two biggest disasters in US military history. If anyone should know the perils of sabre-rattling, it would be him, one would think.

Missing the Point

Interestingly, some journalists (here’s just one example from heise online ) seem to justify Biden’s jingoism as an attempt to deter other countries from using “cyber attacks” as part of their offensive foreign policy. This does not make much sense as it completely misses why states use hacker attacks like this at all. The point is that “cyber war” precisely isn’t war, as I’ve explained before, and that these attacks are chiefly used because of their plausible deniability. Because attribution of such attacks is very hard, sometimes almost impossible, they can be used to hurt countries without the risk of open war.

Technical attribution of these attacks, if it is possible at all, takes a lot of work and time, many months in most cases. Which is why so far, we’ve never seen a single case where politicians have waited for the evidence before attributing the attack. It often gets blamed on the country that’s currently perceived as the biggest adversary – which in the case of the US and Germany is usually Russia. So the attribution, in most cases, is purely political and almost always serves very cynical needs of the current government.

In some cases, say the first hacker attack on the German Bundestag, we learn years later that the hack was apparently attributed based on intelligence gathered from other sources (in this case HUMINT from people close to Putin). But even if such a revelation is believable, there is no way to independently verify it. As is so often the case, it’s hard to tell if information from the shadowy world of intelligence services is based on facts or propaganda. To us private citizens, it is simply not reliable.

c.f.: Neuland ist abgebrannt , Fabian A. Scherschel, c’t 15/2015, p. 44

Therefore Biden’s warning cannot be an effective deterrent to countries using computer-based attacks to target the United States.

Let’s say Russia, as Biden claims, is currently engaged in state-directed “cyber attacks” against the US. Even if they saw the Biden speech as a deterrent and stopped all attacks, Biden could simply attribute the next attack coming in from, say China, politically to Russia anyway and use it as an excuse to start a war. So what does Russia have to gain from not participating in this new area of foreign policy if attacks are attributed politically and not based on facts? Especially if they think their attacks are unattributable (which is why they are used in the first place).

And that doesn’t even take into account other complexities with so-called “cyber war” that we’ve talked about before. For example when an attack on a company based in a country can be regarded as an attack on that country itself. Or if an attack by criminals or script kiddies can be considered a state-sponsored attack just by virtue of the attacker being in a certain country. What kind of proof needs to be collected by a government to claim another government is involved? It’s hard enough in actual war right now as it is – for examples see the Crimean conflict or various actions fought by Israel against paramilitary organisations, for example Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon War.

Producer Feedback

Producer Galteran sends me a link to a story about YouTube cancelling German creator Gunnar Kaiser . Kaiser, a teacher and novelist from Cologne, is an outspoken critic of the anti-SARS-CoV-2 measures untertaken by the German government and has also been very critical of cancel culture in the past.

YouTube kicked Kaiser off its Partner Program, shutting off his ability to make money on the platform, without any concrete reason, simply referring to his repeat violation of the program’s terms. They did not tell him what these violations were. Kaiser went to the federal state court in Cologne and managed to get an injunction against YouTube. This establishes important precedence for such a case and hasn’t happened before in Germany, as far as I know. YouTube now needs to explicitly point to concrete violations by Kaiser (within seven days, no less) or has to reinstate his ability to make money on the platform. If Google does not comply, it will be liable to pay fees for ignoring a court order.

YouTube has discriminated against Kaiser and violated the neutrality of its platform, which is guaranteed by the press freedom article in the German constitution (see episode 75), according to Kaiser’s lawyer Joachim Steinhöfel. Steinhöfel sees the injunction as an important precedence for creators who are shutdown by YouTube without sufficient reasons under German law. He also says that it is obvious that the constitution’s press freedom protections also apply to journalists who work on their own and for themselves.

Martin replies to my comments about his feedback from episode 79:

I agree with you up to a point about journalistic standards and his guilt of contempt of court, but the situation is a lot more complicated than the average sexual assault case. This is because the accusers were also members of government who had been actively involved in the legislative process regarding sexual misconduct (the process the Scottish Government implemented was itself the subject of a previous lawsuit and found to be illegal). In effect these people had twin roles in the case but could not be named in either context, meaning that the reasons Alex Salmond was cleared of all charges cannot be fully revealed. One of these people is on record as stating in a WhatsApp group message “I have a plan by which we can remain anonymous.”

This was a conspiracy to completely destroy the reputation of Alex Salmond and prevent his return to politics, and it has been successful. I know the identity of the person that made that statement on WhatsApp and have a photograph of them at a meeting I attended, but two people have already been given prison sentences for naming them so I won’t do so now. I did not learn their identity from what Craig Murray wrote, by the way.

There is also a shocking double standard to the sentence handed down to Craig Murray. He was by no means the only journalist to reveal information that could lead to the identity of the accusers. Several others revealed far more, most notably one Dani Garavelli and court reporter James Doleman (who actually outright named someone). These people were not even investigated, far less charged. It’s my belief that the reason for that is that they were on the “right” side and Craig Murray isn’t.

If you have any thoughts on the things discussed in this or previous episodes, please feel free to contact me. In addition to the information listed there, we also have an experimental Matrix room for feedback. Try it out if you have an account on a Matrix server. Any Matrix server will do.

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Podcast Music

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