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Putin & Trump: Can They Survive “Internet Terror”?

Internet espionage as an equal opportunity discriminator.

Credit: Carsten Reisinger Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The tools the US has been using against select foreign powers can also be turned on the US itself.
  • Activist hackers may be tempted to carry out cyber espionage against Trump intending to bring him down.
  • How far is the United States prepared to go in its cyber terror against Putin?

In China, the term “internet terror” is used to describe the practice of exposing people for corruption through vigilante action on the Internet.

This is a new phenomenon of the information age that is redefining Chinese politics. Corrupt intelligence agents in China with access to incriminating cyber evidence will leak against their political enemies.

Even China’s highest leaders have experienced this form of cyber terror, as evidenced by the bombshell stories in 2012 in two separate U.S. newspapers on the wealth of former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and then President-in-waiting, Xi Jinping.

Both stories depended on unusual knowledge of personal details of the families of the two men, which appear to have been facilitated by cyber espionage.

Next stop: Russia

On Monday night, the BBC screened a program on the corruption of Vladimir Putin. The program alleged that he has amassed a personal fortune of $40 billion through corruption.

This proposition has been known for at least a decade, if not longer, even if the stock of his wealth has grown.

What was novel about the BBC program is that it included an interview with a U.S. Treasury official, Adam Szubin. He directly alleged that Putin is corrupt.

According to the New York Times in 2014, the CIA had prepared a secret analysis of Putin’s wealth and corrupt practices as early as 2007.

That report, which we must assume depended in part on cyber espionage, was brought into play in diplomacy after the Russian annexation of Crimea, as the U.S. sought to impose targeted sanctions on the personal financial interests of Russian leaders, including Putin.

How far will the US take it?

The public appearance of a U.S. Treasury official in the BBC program, most likely in the final days before the release of the Litvinenko inquiry report implicating Putin in the assassination, is a clear diplomatic gambit against Putin by the United States.

It is a direct and very public threat to Putin, indicating that the U.S. government knows (by cyber intelligence means, among others) where his assets are.

Unlike the 2007 CIA report, which was reported to be light on “smoking gun” detail, cyber espionage efforts would have advanced a great deal in the eight years since.

This would provide a far more complete picture, not to mention access to copies of actual documentation, of transactions in Putin’s favor.

We are left to contemplate how far the United States is prepared to go in its cyber terror against Putin. Is this an effort to eventually bring Putin down, through the slow leak of incriminating information? Probably not.

It is more likely part of an effort to make Putin more cooperative on several fundamental issues, whether on nuclear arm limitations or a Syrian political settlement.

Whatever the goals, these developments point to a new form of cyberized diplomatic warfare.

Blowback to US?

The U.S. and UK governments must know that this tool is not just one used against other powers like China and Russia. It is also a weapon that can be used against its own leadership.

Until today, it may have been a flight of fancy to expect a global response to Trump in the cyber sphere. But it is no longer a theoretical matter.

With Trump looking more likely by the day to get the Republican Party nomination, many groups, from foreign intelligence agencies to activist hackers around the world, may be tempted to unleash a campaign of cyber espionage against him with the clear intention of bringing him down.

The hacker group Anonymous has just announced as much.

His phone records, email messages, financial transactions, home video selections, internet browsing history will be scrutinized by cyber insurgents.

What’s next? The U.S. intelligence community will likely be obliged to use its counter-espionage arsenal to prevent such unlawful behavior against a leading Presidential candidate.

After all, any foreign actions of this kind against Trump would constitute improper and unlawful interference in U.S. domestic politics.

Welcome to the ironies and complex moral landscape of internet terror.

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About Greg Austin

Greg Austin is a Professorial Fellow at the EastWest Institute and author of the book "Cyber Policy in China" (Polity 2014). [United States]

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