The Western media has long been full of headlines about Russia’s endless interference in everything and everywhere, with politicians and experts at all levels regularly saying the same. Previously uncritical, its audience is now firmly convinced that “Russian hackers” and “Russian trolls” are the biggest threat to Western society and constantly trying to undermine “the foundations of democracy”. Fortunately, however, the “good guys” from the US and NATO – who work tirelessly to protect the people of the West, while not forgetting to squeeze additional opportunities out of them and funding for themselves – always manage to foil the attacks of these “bad Russians”.
How is it that these same Western media outlets, politicians and experts openly go on about the creation of new cyber command units, enormous data processing centres, special surveillance and information exchange programmes between intelligence agencies, the development of highly effective cyber weapons and so on in Europe and America, but it is Russia that is readily referred to as the “cyber aggressor”? Why is it that the so-called “Big Tech” – which consists exclusively of American IT companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, etc.) that have entangled almost the entire Internet in their services and social media – can gather personal data and target users for commercial and political purposes, including through the use of censorship and an open crackdown on anything objectionable, but accusations of interference are only made against Russia?
Let’s take a look.
There is no doubt that we are dealing with a battle in cyberspace, and one piece of information may contradict another depending on its purpose. Therefore, any judgements should be based solely on facts and not on their interpretation. So, what are these facts?
All accusations against Russia of cyberattacks generally boil down to bold, unsubstantiated statements and the extensive discussions that ensue. Reports are filled with descriptions about what the alleged evildoers were up to, but, oddly enough, very little is said about their aims, and what is said is extremely vague. Convincing evidence is never produced. US officials and their allies account for this lack of evidence by saying that it is highly confidential and they are protecting their intelligence agencies’ sources.
Everyone understands that the work carried out by intelligence agencies is extremely secretive. However, the fact is that it is not the intelligence agencies’ working methods or their sources that are being hidden from interested readers, but the actual goals of these alleged cyberattacks and the damage caused.
Essentially, conspiracy theories worthy of a Hollywood sci-fi movie prevail. To make the plot seem more convincing, meanwhile, it is furnished with people and circumstances that the “directors” trust will point their audience towards Russian involvement. These include numerous references to the Russian president, who allegedly gave the order; detailed descriptions of Russia’s intelligence agencies carrying out covert activities in the interests of their state; and stories about Internet posts in Cyrillic that could have only been written by Russians.
It is perfectly clear that form trumps content.
Time and again, these ingredients are carefully kneaded together in cyberspace with the help of those same politicians, experts and media outlets so that the uninformed viewer, listener or reader quickly begins to perceive what is going on as so real that the need for any additional confirmation becomes irrelevant. After all, if all the sources are saying the same thing, how can they be wrong? The fact that they are all citing each other escapes notice.
Experience shows that, once informative “spin stories” like these are out there, they take on a life of their own. Even a complete refutation of the facts on which the story is based will have little to no effect on its continued dissemination in cyberspace. The collapse of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election did nothing to change the all-too-familiar rhetoric about Russian cyber aggression.
But why is the idea of Russia as a cyber aggressor being pushed so forcefully?
The fact that the US is a world leader in information and telecommunications technologies is never discussed. In recent years, however, Washington has increasingly sought to develop and use these for military purposes, to actively militarise cyberspace.
In 2010, the US developed the Stuxnet virus and used it against Iran. The attack was a kind of “cyber Hiroshima” and served as a wake-up call to the entire global community, since such aggressive actions could have had irreparable consequences not just for Iran, but for the entire region as a whole. Thus, America was actually the first ever country to use a cyber weapon against a state.
The year before, in 2009, the Cyber Command was created under the leadership of the Pentagon. This new military command combines both defensive and offensive powers that are exercised on the basis of information received from the main intelligence agency – the National Security Agency (NSA).
In August 2017, the Cyber Command became an independent structure by order of the US president and was upgraded to the status of a unified command. Thus, the new command unit was put on a par with nine other US warfighting commands. The Cyber Command was provided with 130 units and more than 6,000 employees, including qualified cyber operators capable of taking part in both defensive and offensive operations.
The head of the NSA and US Cyber Command, Lieutenant General Paul Nakasone, believes that Washington needs to take a more aggressive approach towards its opponents in cyberspace. As such, US Cyber Command developed a new roadmap in March 2018 called “Achieve and Maintain Cyberspace Superiority”. According to this new strategy, the US military should carry out raids on foreign networks on an almost daily basis and disable suspicious servers before they attempt to launch malware.
As reported by The New York Times, however, some US officials are concerned that US action in foreign networks could lead to retaliatory strikes on American banks, financial markets or communication networks. The authors of the cyber strategy are not ruling out certain diplomatic risks either, since Cyber Command believes that America’s main opponents are not so much non-state actors like terrorists, criminals and hactivists, but countries like China, Russia, Iran, etc.
As can be seen, the US is developing its cyber capabilities to carry out aggressive cyber offensives, going so far as preventive cyberattacks targeting the information structures of sovereign states.
In addition to developing cyberstructures, the US has been carrying out global espionage since 1947 as part of the ECHELON electronic surveillance programme. Modern information and telecommunications technologies have allowed Washington to significantly enhance the capabilities of its intelligence services. Striking evidence of this is the US government’s PRISM program (Program for Robotics, Intelligent Sensing, and Mechatronics), which has been running since 2007 and conducts covert mass data collection without judicial sanction. Documentary evidence provided by former CIA and NSA employee Edward Snowden in 2013 showed that US intelligence agencies are using the PRISM program to gain access to the central servers of the nine leading Internet companies – Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, AOL, Skype, and Apple.
In fact, US intelligence agencies are compiling a global database of social media users’ personal data, audio and video files, photographs, emails, and electronic documents. Snowden also revealed that the NSA had used the PRISM program to listen in on the telephone conversations of 35 heads of state and some foreign diplomats. Experts claim that US intelligence agencies, in collaboration with the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), have been illegally cracking virtually all Internet cryptography standards by using supercomputers and the services of top-notch hackers.
Thus, Washington’s cyber weapons build-up and global cyber espionage activities threaten world security, and all the false talk of “Russian meddling” and “Russian hackers” is just a cover designed to keep this fact off the international agenda.
It turns out that we worded the question incorrectly. The West is not pushing the idea of Russia as a cyber aggressor, but the idea that the cyber aggressor is Russia. Why? To deflect attention.