#Guest Contribution: The invisible war

How are whistleblowers perceived in different countries? Does digitisation lead to surveillance capitalism? Are blogs and social media a catalyst for democratic change in authoritarian states? What does Europe have to say about how cyber conflicts should be tackled? In the lead-up to the re:publica conference and under our Finding Europe heading, we will put out a bi-weekly review of key debates on these and other issues in cooperation with our media partner euro|topics, with voices from the press and websites of Europe. Our fourth contrubtion explores how Europe deals with cyberwarfare.

Cyber attacks on public and private institutions often result in considerable financial damage and loss of reputation. But does the war on the web also pose a risk to entire social systems? And what happens when states use the same weapons as hackers?

Cyberwarfare suddenly became a reality in Hollywood at the end of 2014. Hackers launched an attack on the servers of film company Sony Pictures, stealing huge amounts of highly sensitive data and posting threats. US authorities were quick to make out the perpetrators behind the "Sony hack": North Korea, they concluded, orchestrated the attack to prevent screenings of the film "The Interview", which is about a plot to assassinate Pyongyang's leader Kim Jong Un.  And Sony actually did cancel the film's release in the US after the incident.

The hackers deeply shook Western values with their attack, writes Slate author Fred Kaplan in the French edition of the online magazine, describing the hack as the start of a "new age of cyberwarfare": "Most cyberattacks to date have been mounted in order to steal money, patents, credit card numbers, or national-security secrets. Whoever hacked Sony did so to put pressure on free speech." And they seem to have set a precedent: only a week ago unidentified hackers attacked another cultural institution. Islamists disrupted the global broadcasts of French-language television network TV5Monde and posted threatening messages from the IS terrorist group on the network's website.

Battle lines not drawn yet

But has the war on the web really advanced to the point where it poses a threat to democracies? Public debate in Europe tends to alternate between playing it down and panic mongering. The Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger reflects on the difficulties of understanding this invisible war: "Cyberwarfare is not a real war yet, but rather a combination of espionage and sabotage, theft and blackmail. However the battle lines are still far from having been drawn. Like soldiers, hackers too can destroy things: reputations, assets, the sense of security. It's no longer science fiction for one state to sabotage the nuclear facilities of another; the US has already done this in Iran."

Finland has been looking for an effective response to an attack against its foreign ministry for some time now. In 2013 it emerged that government communications networks had been hacked and infected with viruses. To complicate matters, it wasn't Finnish IT experts who detected the attack but the "experts of a friendly nation". This triggered a debate about increased Internet surveillance as protection against such attacks. In the daily Helsinging Sanomat, the social democratic Minister of Communications Krista Kiuru explains why she opposes such an approach – unlike many of her colleagues: "Finland wants to be a pioneer in cyber security and the digital economy. We want Finland's reputation to attract international investors now and in the future. This competitive advantage could quickly be lost if the current high levels of protection for private and confidential communications are deliberately undermined. Cyber security won't be improved through ineffectual and already outdated solutions."

Secret services the worst hackers

It's not just a few Finnish politicians who believe states will have to arm themselves to fend off cyber attacks. The liberal French business daily Les Echos called for measures to render the Internet useless as a propaganda machine for terrorists after the attacks in Paris: "On the one hand a consensus must be reached on technical and legal instruments to be used for investigating and monitoring social networks, in other words preventive cyberwarfare. On the other, instruments for eliminating certain activities [such as propaganda] are needed. This would be offensive cyberwarfare. These two things, however, have their price. To protect our collective freedom we must curtail our individual freedoms to some extent." The state as a guardian protecting its citizens. Such an idea sends shivers down the spines of others, for instance author Una Mullally, who writes in the Irish Times: "Who are the biggest hackers in the world? Who are behind the largest breaches of privacy and public trust? Well, that would be US government agencies, primarily the NSA."

Anonymous Robin Hoods

But it's not just governments that are getting involved in cyberwarfare. After all, the weapons used here cost less than those for conventional warfare and are easier to acquire. The hacking group Anonymous announced at the end of February that it had disabled numerous social media accounts of members of the terrorist group Islamic State. The Italian daily Avvenire, however, finds this Robin Hood attitude to the subject of cyberwarfare inappropriate: "What sounds like a kind of modern fairytale – a bunch of rebellious boys slipping into the role of the good guys and saving the world – is more complicated than it seems. Especially since the players are themselves shady characters. Since the name Anonymous first became public it has been used sometimes to describe individual hackers and other times to describe groups of hackers. It's not without reason that experts aren't ruling out the possibility of government military units being involved in the attacks on IS accounts."

In cyberwarfare, distinguishing between good and evil, attackers and victims, right and wrong is complicated. Perhaps precisely that is the biggest factor it has in common with conventional wars.


Twenty-six foreign correspondents follow the key debates in Europe and comb through the commentary pages of influential media for the euro|topics international online press review. All the selected opinion pieces are available in German, English and French. The eurotopics press review has been contributing to the formation of a European public sphere since 2005, and has a constantly growing archive of more than 30,000 commentaries. An index of roughly 500 newspapers, online portals and blogs provides broad access to Europe’s media landscape. The journalists’ network n-ost has been producing the daily press review on behalf of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education since 2008.

For more information see www.eurotopics.net

photo credit: mikael altemark "Hacker" (CC BY 2.0)