JUST ONCE, wouldn’t it be nice to hear a government give voice to the bleeding-bloody-obvious? To see a Prime Minister, just once, drop the pretense that her “official version” of events, and the truth, are anything other than very distant relations. If nothing else, it would be an extremely interesting experiment. How would the world react?
Such were the thoughts that passed through my head on Tuesday morning when I heard the news about the US-led criticism of the so-called “Chinese Hackers”. Characterised as a shot across China’s bow by the fed-up Western powers – and New Zealand – this ultimatum masquerading as a missive called upon the Chinese Government to rein-in its errant cyber-warriors, or face something considerably worse than a warning being directed at Beijing.
Meanwhile, in the capitals of those Western powers, highly respected newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Guardian were running a horror story about a cyber-weapon called “Pegasus”. Developed by the Israelis, and marketed to a veritable rogues’ gallery of authoritarian nation states, Pegasus allows its purchaser to take over the cellphones of political and/or journalistic irritants and transform them into more-or-less continuous transmitters of high-grade (and potentially fatal) intelligence.
So, let’s be clear: the very same Western powers who were voicing their alarm at China’s alleged outsourcing of its cyber-attack capabilities to private actors, are the identical Western powers who, for years, have winked at their friends in Jerusalem outsourcing their intelligence gathering to a shadowy Tel Aviv outfit known simply as the NSO Group. What’s more, these same powers are expecting us to believe that only “baddies” like the Saudi Arabians and the right-wing populist Hungarians are availing themselves of this state-of-the-art surveillance technology. That the USA, Britain, Canada, Australia (and New Zealand?) would never dream of using Pegasus (or something very like it) to spy on their own “irritants”.
That’s why it would have been so incredibly refreshing to hear Andrew Little, the cabinet minister responsible for the GCSB, call a media conference to announce that the cyber-attack capabilities of the Chinese Government and their arms-length surrogates had now reached the point where effective retaliation against Western penetration of Chinese cyber-space has been demonstrated in the most practical and potentially destructive fashion.
At the very least, such an admission would clear the air of all the smoke which the “Five Eyes” intelligence gathering partnership has been blowing in New Zealanders’ faces for so long. It would also relieve us of the Orwellian obligation to go on believing the unbelievable. Namely, that we and our Five Eyes partners are not constantly engaged in probing and penetrating the cyber-defences of the Chinese, the Russians, and anyone else who pisses off our big mates. That we are not constantly seeking to discover how much they know about what we know; and to, whenever possible, use our own cyber-weapons to degrade, disable and destroy any competitive economic, military and technological edge these “enemy” countries might possess.
With the air thus cleared, we could, perhaps, be spared the sort of rhetoric spouted by one commentator who, on Tuesday morning, compared a recent Chinese hack attack to a “ram raid”. This colourful metaphor casts the United States and its allies in the role of the innocent shopkeeper whose front window is smashed-in, and merchandise stolen, by a car-load of delinquent Orientals. Talk about psychological projection! As if that same innocent shopkeeper, in March 2003, had not, in complete violation of the UN Charter and contrary to International Law, ram-raided his way into a shop called Iraq – and laid it waste.
How much more liberating it would be – for the whole world – if Jacinda Ardern delivered a speech to the United Nations in which she pledged to do all within her power to persuade the great powers of the world that cyber-warfare, like nuclear warfare, can only end in the mutual and assured destruction of the contending powers. That computer viruses, no less than biological viruses, have the potential to bring our intricately interconnected and acutely vulnerable world to its knees.
Imagine her pledging before the UN General Assembly that, henceforth, New Zealand would maintain an exclusively defensive cyber posture, and, paraphrasing Lincoln, declare: “With malice toward none, with kindness to all, let us strive to do everything we can to achieve a just and lasting cyber-peace between nations.”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 23 July 2021.