China has apparently added a unique new weapon to its sprawling arsenal. A new report from U.S. security company Mandiant reveals a new Chinese military unit dedicated to carrying out hacking attacks against Western targets that include major corporations and industries. Such a move is almost unprecedented and exemplifies how conflict is evolving into the digital realm. It has become all too easy for a hostile nation to target another's infrastructure though the internet. As nations grapple with this new threat, legal and political experts are widely speculating on whether network attacks constitute an act of war, and if so, how best to combat the myriad threats coming from any potential digital attacker, regardless of whether the attacker is aligned with a nation state or stateless actor.
Understanding what exactly hacking is and how it can be used to attack a nation is the first step to answering this tricky question. The problem is not all hackers are strictly malicious. Hacker circles typically define themselves by using colored hats a metaphor. White hats, for example, are those that are capable of accessing systems without authorization, the essence of hacking, but do so in order to test security capabilities as part of an official capacity. White hats are also computer engineers that utilize open-source systems that are collaboratively modified over the span of their use. Black hats are malicious hackers that illegally access systems with the intent to steal, modify, or destroy information stored within. Gray Hats fall in between these groups. They often act illegally or without authorization, but not in a malicious manner. Many are simply hacker that tries to crack security just to see if it is possible or try to discover major flaws for increased awareness. Where critical infrastructure or military secrets are concerned, black and gray hats are the ones to worry about.
Hostile nations will certainly employ their black hats and possibly even gray hats to perpetrate attacks against their rivals. This provides obvious benefits in an all-out war effort. It will also give economically or militarily disadvantaged nations an opportunity to level the playing field a bit by going after their enemy's digitally dependent infrastructure. It is also an ideal method for stealthily perpetrating an attack without revealing involvement. The Stuxnet virus, which seriously damaged an Iranian uranium reprocessing plant in 2010, is the perfect example of such an attack, since on one knows who exactly was responsible.
Nation states are not the only entities that could use hacking as a weapon. Anonymous, the infamous hacker group, has demonstrated that hacking can be a useful, albeit criminal tool for activism. Much of this group's exploits have been tied to protests against government infringement of privacy, oppressive international regimes, and various extremist groups. Anonymous members utilize hacking techniques to disrupt target websites, often replacing them with messages or political slogans, and do so without revealing their identities, hence the group's name.
Exploits like those perpetrated by Anonymous come at a time when western nations are struggling to combat terrorism around the world. Governments may consider attacks against their websites as terrorist activities. They may also regard attacks against any major or business deemed an important part of the national infrastructure in a similar manner. The U.S. government is already developing a legal framework to combat terrorism, which is broadly defined as violence and/or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. Part of that legal framework, the NDAA, allows for indefinite detention without warrants. The implications of this are frightening; especially considering that some hacker attacks can use personal computers without the user's knowledge.
Hacking may indeed be an act of war, especially when perpetrated by one government against another. This may also include instances when an activist with the right knowledge tries to make a point by targeting an official website. Laws governing terrorism could provide governments means to target dissension, which places citizens in a precarious position.