20 February 2019
Several years ago, an American security firm allegedly accessed the computers used by China’s military hacking unit, which operates out of a nondescript twelve-storey building near one of Shanghai’s main airports. This enabled American intelligence to piece together a day in the life of a People’s Liberation Army hacker. According to The New York Times’s David Sanger, the hackers (typically male) arrive at work at about 8.30 a.m., check the sports results and newspapers, and then some send notes to their girlfriends. At 9.00 a.m., as Sanger told NPR last year, “they’d start hacking into American sites. Lunchtime, they’re back to sending notes to the girlfriends.”
Most analysts believe it was this unit that carried out a cyberattack targeting Australia’s Liberal, Labor and National parties – a pre-election hack revealed by Scott Morrison on Monday. China’s foreign ministry has dismissed claims it was involved as “baseless speculation”. But the incident demonstrates the evolving nature of the cyberthreat facing countries such as Australia. Conducted between snack breaks, from afar, such hacking can destabilise governments and undermine democracy.
Until recently, the main question for states trying to combat espionage was whether it was driven by security and defence purposes, or to steal commercial secrets. Barack Obama made an explicit distinction between Chinese spying aimed at, say, his plans for a meeting with Japan, which he said was legitimate, and stealing designs from Apple, which was not. In 2015, he and Xi Jinping reached an agreement to stop the hacking of companies and routine government data (in November of last year, Washington accused Beijing of violating the deal). But Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and in European elections has highlighted a third form of hacking: to sabotage democratic political processes.
Cyberattacks by China have tended to be less “destructive”, as Sanger put it, than those of countries such as Russia, Iran or North Korea. But China has apparently become increasingly active in targeting government and political institutions, particularly in Australia. Chinese hackers have been blamed for attacks on the Bureau of Meteorology and the federal parliament.
The hacking of political parties threatens to undermine confidence in elections and, more broadly, in democracy. Beyond building adequate cyber-defences, Australian leaders should consistently and publicly share information about threats. Morrison was right to expose the hacking, and, if the country responsible can be identified, he should name it. As of Tuesday, he said the culprit was a “government” but that he was “not in a position” to identify which one. His wording was deliberately ambiguous and suggested that security agencies suspect a specific country but are not able to confirm it; if so, Morrison should make this clear.
Cyberthreats to democracy extend beyond hacking. Countries such as Russia and China are also using the internet to bolster the power of their leaderships, restrict freedom of information and curb civil rights. Russia is preparing to run a test before 1 April in which it will temporarily disconnect from the internet. This will enable it not only to check its defences against a cyberattack, but it will also help it to develop independent online infrastructure that could give Moscow greater control over its internet. China’s Communist Party has the Great Firewall, its system of filters that blocks unwanted content, including sites and apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter. China has also been exporting its technology and surveillance techniques to countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Uganda to assist them to monitor and censor the internet.
All countries can now either develop or buy technology to curb information and entrench the ruling party or regime. These internal controls may ultimately prove even harder to combat or expose than threats from foreign hackers. The best, and perhaps only, defence is a public that engages with the values and institutions that underpin democracy, and that cares about its freedom to access information and is willing to protect it.