China Tests Limits of US Hacking Truce, North Korea EMP Threat & Cyber Attacks an Act of War


US – China Digital Diplomacy Struggles – Since 2015, the world’s two superpowers have agreed in writing to not hack each other’s private sector companies for commercial gain, which was recognised as the most effective demonstration of government negotiation to curtail cyberspying. However, under the surface, cybersecurity researchers along with recent world events have put a strain on this agreement, with news headline attacks bearing the hallmarks of Chinese hacking. Most notably was the CCleaner backdoor breach that affected millions of people worldwide but targeted specifically US companies like Google, Microsoft, Intel and VMWare, with tools associated with the Chinese APT group, Axiom used. Earlier this month in maybe a public reminder of the deal to each other, President Trump’s administration along with its Chinese counterparts formally reaffirmed the formal agreement.

In effect, in the last two years security researchers have said that the Chinese haven not decreased its hacking attempts but merely changed how it hacks the US. Its focused has shifted to traditional government espionage, which falls outside the defined ban. However, due to current world events and with the US reliant on China to help stabilise the North Korean crisis, it is unlikely they are going to call out their Asian counterparts when they risk losing a key ally in a much more volatile situation.

North Korea EMP Threat – North Korea have threatened an EMP attack on the US mainland but before you get too carried away, despite the hermit country probably having the capability with recent events as evidence, it is unlikely such an event would ever occur. For those who do not know, if you explode a nuclear weapon at high altitude, it generates an electromagnetic pulse, which can disrupt electronics ranging from cars, to street lights to the countries power grid itself. The practice has been proven in the past by both the US and Russia in the 1960s but people still remain skeptical as to the true impact of this type of nuclear-based attack. North Korea actually carrying through with its threat and attacking the US with an EMP attack is a fantastically risky manoeuvre with the US very much able to counter with a response from plenty of places other than the mainland. This sort of provocation is typical of the North Korean regime and most likely bluster to try and gain bargaining ground as exploding a nuclear weapon in an above ground EMP test would certainly assure its destruction with how things are currently poised.

Cyber War – Under certain conditions in the future, cyber attacks will be recognised as an act of war. Now like the above report, before we get carried away again, this isn’t as significant as it first sounds as the framework being put forward by the EU, “a joint EU diplomatic response to malicious cyber activities” is aligning itself with already existing NATO doctrine. NATO already recognises that cyberspace is a domain of conflict within which states can legitimately exercise their right to self-defense. However, as always the main problem of attribution remains difficult and problematic.

With attribution remaining difficult and in relation to the above, the UK’s attribution to North Korea for the WannaCry attacks received a stinging response from Pyongyang this week, with a firm denial and righteous promises of retaliation against the slanderers. The UK now joins the long queue of countries the DPRK has in its sights for retaliation.