The Hacker and the State | Ben Buchanan

Summary of: The Hacker and the State: Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics
By: Ben Buchanan


Welcome to the enthralling world of cyberattacks and cyberespionage detailed in Ben Buchanan’s remarkable book, ‘The Hacker and the State: Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics’. As you dive into this summary, you will witness the intricate interplay of international politics and the cyber realm. Discover how prominent nations like the United States and China utilize their hacking capabilities to shape diplomatic landscapes, and the covert tactics employed in cyber operations. Journey through the history of cryptography, its significance during World War II, and its continued role in protecting sensitive information.

The New Age of Statecraft

Global competition over digital resources intensifies through cyberwar and espionage. States aim to shape the political and diplomatic landscape through covert acts of sabotage and influence. In this new era of statecraft, cyber operations are more effective at shaping the diplomatic landscape than signaling. The United States deploys versatile hacking resources successfully to shape the diplomatic landscape but struggles to send precise and authoritative messages to other countries.

America’s “Home-field Advantage” in Cyber Operations

The book mentions an incident that occurred in 2010 when an important United Nations Security Council proposal about tougher sanctions on Iran was up for a vote. The American ambassador, Susan Rice, needed to know how other countries viewed the issue. The United States leveraged its National Security Agency (NSA), known for its hacking and wiretapping capabilities, to obtain information about Security Council members. The NSA sought legal authorization for increased surveillance and then used AT&T’s network to gather the necessary data. This incident reveals the power of having a “home-field advantage” in conducting cyber operations. The United States had connections around the world and a crucial relationship with a telecommunications company that made it easy to collect information. The book explains how “home-field advantage” can have different dimensions and how, combined with sophisticated analytical methodologies, it can provide an advantage in negotiations and in targeting terrorists and people engaging in bank fraud. Secrecy is a vital aspect of this advantage. The activities do not attempt to signal to other states or change their behavior, but instead, seek to remain unnoticed.

The Power of Encryption

Encryption is the practice of recasting information into an unintelligible form with a special key to protect it from prying eyes. Decryption is the reverse process of changing encrypted information back to its decipherable form. As cyber operations continue to change the world, encryption has become vital in protecting crucial information. During WWII, the use of Enigma, a sophisticated encryption machine from the Nazis, led to the Allies’ triumph after some of the world’s great mathematicians decrypted it. However, contemporary cryptography has become more complicated, and designing new, modern systems is like designing next-generation jets. Today, most countries use encryption to safeguard their data, while intelligence agencies work tirelessly to decode foreign nations’ encrypted information.

China’s Cyber Espionage

China’s cyber espionage campaign started in 2000 with a focus on spear-phishing. Hackers target specific information to gain economic and political advantage for the Communist Party. The cyberattacks allow China to obtain trade secrets worth billions of dollars and weapons systems designs. China’s lagged competition with the US and needs to shift relations to its advantage, making cyberattacks a crucial tool. Despite lacking home-field advantage, computer hackers can operate at unprecedented speed, scale, and breadth. China’s cyber espionage aims to support its global goals and compete against its political rivals.

Hacking to Protect: Understanding Counterintelligence

The book explores counterintelligence, a critical aspect of spying that goes beyond mere intelligence gathering. This approach involves delving into the minds of adversaries to understand their plans and methods. Through counterintelligence, Allied powers in World War II were able to gain crucial information about Nazi activities and plans. In modern times, countries have used cyber campaigns to obtain diplomatic advantages. For instance, in the late 2000s, the US launched a counter-campaign against Chinese hackers. The aim was to “hack the hackers” and gain insights into China’s objectives and methods. As the book shows, such campaigns are endless and crucial to national security. By hacking into other spies’ computers, organizations like the NSA can repel or mislead adversaries and keep important secrets safe.

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