The Main National Security Threat in Biden Era: Cyberattacks

Norse’s real-time cyberattack map shows less than 1 percent of attacks on the threat intelligence firm’s own network. NORSE

Since the end of the Cold War, the world rapidly experiences the process of globalization. Many people, companies, and states benefited from this ongoing process, while others may be damaged economically, some harmed culturally, and the environment may be affected. Globalization, as the international integration of markets for goods, services, and capital, and movement of information and people increases serious concerns for US national interests because of its effect on technological capacity and security in the home and abroad[1]. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States faces several historically unique difficulties, including the rise of a potential rival competitor like China, rapid growth and change in information and communication technologies, the proliferation of nuclear and WMD capabilities, and the possible joining of these capabilities with transnational terrorist organizations[2]. The certainties of the Cold War and having a specific enemy have disappeared by the collapse of the Soviet Union. And today the United States’ main enemies are hostile states like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, non-state actors like Al-Qaeda, and even anonymous individuals and hackers[3]. Globalization as a multidimensional phenomenon resulted in the rapid growth and spread of information and communications technologies (ICT)[4], trade, free movement of people, and capital, which created two main challenges from those hostile actors to the US national security, namely, cyberattack and transnational terrorism.

President-elect Joe Biden formally presented his national security team custom-designed to banish President Trump’s isolationism. Although we still don’t know about his priorities in national security, we know that Joe Biden will enter office with a daunting list of problems to tackle, including several national security difficulties: the Covid-19 pandemic, a deep recession and massive unemployment, the climate change issue, battered alliances, multi-faceted competition with China, malign Russian influences in Europe and the US, a nuclear-armed North Korea, and violent extremists and cyberattacks. The Biden Administration will likely share the Trump team’s understanding of China as the United States’ main strategic competitor and the need to prepare for great power competition, as designated under the most recent National Defense Strategy. In Russia’s case, we could expect Biden’s White House to mirror President Obama’s policy and increasing pressure on Russia. Such competition and confrontation with these adversaries could increase their cyberwars and cyberattacks on US critical infrastructure and US citizens’ data.

Perhaps the biggest threat to national security in the Biden Era going to be the cyberattacks or cyberwars. Because of globalization, information and communications technologies (ICT) are becoming very low-priced, and most states can connect to the global information infrastructure, and use it to attack against their adversaries[5]. Unlike conventional weaponry technologies, access to ICT no longer requires many financial resources or state assistance. The spread of globalization resulted in the availability of many offensive variables and tools to all. Terrorists, drug lords, organized crime groups, foreign spies, or a single person sitting in his basement, easily from anywhere in the world, can access and offensively use ICT to support their goals and objectives, which pose a threat to the national security. Also, ICTs will continue to advance and spread rapidly, allowing individuals and hostile states and non-state groups to carry cyber-attacks on the United States’ interests and infrastructure. Thus, one of the major challenges for the intelligence community is to find ways to defend the nation’s infrastructure and protect commerce while maintaining an open society.

A computer network attack, or cyberattack, disrupts the integrity or authenticity of data, mainly by a harmful code that changes program logic that controls data. The malicious code leads to errors and problems in the output. Once affected with spying code, a computer can remotely control by anyone anywhere, via the Internet, send directions to spy on the contents of that computer or attack on other networks, creating a real danger to the US national security[6]. As the 2019, Worldwide Threat Assessment noted: “As we connect and integrate billions of new digital devices into our lives and business processes, adversaries and strategic competitors almost certainly will gain greater insight into and access to our protected information.”[7] To contain cyber threats, Biden Administration, among with military leaders, and policymakers must understand who our adversaries are, where they are, and what their capabilities, plans and intentions are. At the same time, the new Administration must ensure that they will protect national security information from those enemies.

Russia

Russia continued to be the number one enemy and a tremendous threat to the United States. Since the end of the Cold War, they never headlined to US news to the degree they did during the 2016 presidential election. According to the US intelligence community, Russian President Vladimir Putin is making a quiet, global war against liberal democracy by interfering elections, using computer and internet based technologies[8]. Russia’s military is no longer dominant and a competitor with the United States. President Putin’s cyberattacks in the US continued with hacking the Democratic National Committee and Yahoo in 2016 and 2017[9].

China

China also has capabilities to carry cyberattacks that could temporarily disrupt the US critical infrastructures like electricity power networks and airport systems. According to the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, along with Russia, China also poses the most significant spying and cyberattack threats to the United States[10]. The report warned that China performs a “persistent cyber-espionage threat and a growing attack threat” to US military and critical infrastructure systems. Experts connected the 2010 Google attack to several other political and corporate espionage efforts originating from China, which included spying against military, research, commercial, and manufacturing companies[11].

North Korea

While North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal perform the most extreme threat, its growing cyber capabilities also create a significant risk to the US. The 2014 Defense report from the Ministry of National Defense in South Korea noted: “North Korea currently operates about 6,000 cyber warfare troops and conducts cyber warfare, including the interruption of military operations and attacks against major national infrastructure, to cause psychological and physical paralysis in the South.”[12]

Terrorist Organizations

Cyberattacks, as mentioned before, is not limited to states and criminal groups and terrorist groups also may use it to attack the US interests. In 2015, an ISIS affiliate group calling themselves Cyber-Caliphate took control of social media account of US Central Command and other US military operations in the Middle East[13]. In testifying before Congress, one law-enforcement official said: “Terrorist groups will either develop or hire hackers, particularly for the purpose of complementing large physical attacks with cyber-attacks.”[14]

What the IC should do?

The cyber threat and cyber-attacks became the main enemy of the United States since the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cyber-attacks pose by several hostile states and non-states actors undermine military infrastructure, civil and military aviation systems, financial markets, electric power grids, gas pipelines, and elections. The intelligence community should take a leading role in preventing cyber threats or attacks and protect the US information infrastructure. For instance, intelligence agencies should develop tools that could able them for early detection to stop such attacks. Also, the intelligence community, analysts, and computer scientists should use technical capabilities and traditional techniques — such as human sources, authorized electronic surveillance, physical surveillance, to counter these threats. Furthermore, the IC agencies should actively coordinate with their private and public partners to pierce the veil of anonymity surrounding cyber-based crimes.

[1] Daalder, Ivo H., and James M. Lindsay. “The Globalization of Politics: American Foreign Policy for a New Century.” Brookings. Brookings, July 28, 2016. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/the-globalization-of-politics-american-foreign-policy-for-a-new-century/.

[2] Petras, James. “America’s Enemies, Who’s On the List?” Global Research, January 8, 2020. https://www.globalresearch.ca/americas-enemies-whos-on-the-list/5619763.

[4] “Globalization Helps Spread Knowledge and Technology Across Borders.” IMF Blog, March 14, 2019. https://blogs.imf.org/2018/04/09/globalization-helps-spread-knowledge-and-technology-across-borders/.

[5] “Expansion of Technology Will Increase Cyber Security Threats.” PLANSPONSOR. Accessed March 6, 2020. https://www.plansponsor.com/expansion-technology-will-increase-cyber-security-threats/.

[6] “Computer Attack and Cyberterrorism.” Naval History and Heritage Command. Accessed March 6, 2020. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/c/computer-attack-cyberterrorism-crs.html.

[7] Coats, Daniel. “Worldwide Threat Assessment .” DNI, 2019. https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR---SSCI.pdf.

[8] “Cyber Enemies of the United States.” Congressman Will Hurd, June 27, 2017. https://hurd.house.gov/media-center/in-the-news/cyber-enemies-united-states.

[9] “Significant Cyber Incidents.” Significant Cyber Incidents | Center for Strategic and International Studies. Accessed March 6, 2020. https://www.csis.org/programs/technology-policy-program/significant-cyber-incidents.

[10] Coats, Daniel. “Worldwide Threat Assessment .” DNI, 2019. https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR---SSCI.pdf.

[11] “Significant Cyber Incidents.” Significant Cyber Incidents | Center for Strategic and International Studies. Accessed March 6, 2020. https://www.csis.org/programs/technology-policy-program/significant-cyber-incidents.

[12] “Kim Jong Un’s ‘All-Purpose Sword’.” FDD, January 23, 2019. https://www.fdd.org/analysis/2018/10/03/kim-jong-uns-all-purpose-sword/.

[13] Lamothe, Dan. “U.S. Military Social Media Accounts Apparently Hacked by Islamic State Sympathizers.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 12, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/01/12/centcom-twitter-account-apparently-hacked-by-islamic-state-sympathizers/?Post generic=?tid=sm_twitter_washingtonpost.

[14] Lamothe, Dan. “U.S. Military Social Media Accounts Apparently Hacked by Islamic State Sympathizers.” The Washington Post. WP Company, January 12, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/01/12/centcom-twitter-account-apparently-hacked-by-islamic-state-sympathizers/.

International Security and the Middle East Studies Penn State and IU Alumni. “Authoritarian and hybrid regimes, elections, terror groups and National Security”