Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the United States will seek global rules on how to prevent misuse of artificial intelligence as he renewed warnings against Russia over hacking.
His remarks come amid mounting concern about hacking for ransom, including an attack that shut down a major fuel pipeline in the United States.
President Joe Biden said he warned his counterpart Vladimir Putin in a telephone call that the United States would take action, a message reiterated by Blinken.
These increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks represent a new type of warfare aimed at disorganising and even destroying a nation’s economy. This has been called ‘hybrid warfare.’
It’s a mixture of conventional and unconventional methods used against a much stronger adversary that aims to achieve political objectives that would not be possible with traditional warfare.
The problem is often identifying the culprits. In hybrid warfare the state responsible for the actions will often use non-state actors, which allows it to deny responsibility.
But over the past two decades, many cyber-attacks targeting western state institutions and businesses have been far more sophisticated than a couple of tech-savvy individuals operating as ‘lone wolves’ and bear the hallmarks of actions taken with the support or approval of a hostile government.
Without a doubt, several major nations, particularly Russia, but also China and Iran at the very least, have become adept at using leaks, rumour and political subterfuge to support their geopolitical ends.
The problem, though, is that growing forces within Western countries have also embraced very much the same tactics. It makes getting to the bottom of what is really going on difficult, sometimes impossible. And perhaps most dangerous of all, it means the international climate continues to deteriorate and become ever more paranoid – whether it is justified or not.
It offers a potentially alarming model for any future high-intensity confrontation with Russia, China or both, pointing to an era where ever more players embrace tearing up the rule book and risking – or at worst, even embracing – bloody mayhem.
In Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and to a lesser extent in Libya and beyond, these calculations and their resulting proxy wars have already killed hundreds of thousands.
Elsewhere, particularly in the Western world, the contests have been largely bloodless. Getting to the bottom of what is really going on, however, is more difficult. Indeed, many of those involved are clearly embracing and taking advantage of that dynamic and its resulting confusion.
More broadly this alarming rise in Machiavellian ambiguity risks being a disaster for democracies. Without doubt, it feeds into just the kind of conspiracy theories the far right, Kremlin and other spoilers thrive on, and that the international level it dramatically raises the risks of miscalculation.
With their own more ruthless traditions, autocratic states like Russia, China and Iran, and their leaders in particular, are scarcely less paranoid. All three have made it clear to varying degrees they see the hand of the West in domestic dissent at home, and as discontent such as that in Hong Kong escalates, such worries may get worse.
Honest, open diplomatic channels – both between nuclear nations and domestic political factions – offer almost the only hope of keeping such strains under control.
Clearly, there is no shortage of forces that believe that kind of chaos serves their interests. In the short term, they may be right. In the longer run, however, they may find that they suffer the consequences just as harshly as the rest of us.
(With inputs from agencies)