Playing With (Digital) Fire

As any fan of martial arts knows, one of the best moves is to take an attacker's weapon and turn it back on them. In 2016, that's just what Beijing did – in cyberspace: after American operatives used a particular bit of code to attack Chinese computer systems, Chinese hackers took it, repurposed it, and used it to attack a bunch of US allies, according to The New York Times.

The technical details of the story are fascinating, but it also raises some big political questions:


If countries can't control their cyber arsenals, can they at least establish some ground rules for how they are used? Avoiding a destructive free-for-all in cyberspace may depend on it. But hacking tools aren't like conventional or nuclear arms, where countries have agreed to enforceable limits on capabilities and behavior. They're invisible, with no real way to count them or verify they've been destroyed, and prone to being stolen.

And despite an ongoing attempt by the US and its allies to deter bad behavior by indicting hackers, imposing sanctions, and even threatening military force in response to malicious cyber-attacks, there's nothing in cyberspace comparable to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction that has helped deter and prevent conflicts between nuclear-armed powers.

Why is that so difficult? For one thing, it's relatively easy to hide your identityor get hired guns to do your bidding in cyberspace – making it hard for the victims of cyber-attacks to be 100 percent confident in targeting their response.

There's also a lot of mischief that state-backed hackers can get up to that is short of outright war, but can still hurt an adversary (think: swiping personal data that can help identify spies or stealing trade secrets). Governments don't want to give those capabilities up. This helps explain why attempts to establish widely agreed, enforceable "cyber norms" have made limited progress, despite 15 years of wrestling with the issue at the UN.

The upshot: We already knew the US was struggling to secure its cyber arsenal. Now we know that just using a cyber weapon means there's a risk it'll be stolen and used by someone else. As more countries gain access to these tools, reaching a basic agreement on rules of behavior will become even more important.

Wrecking the global economy's hopes for a relaxing late-August Friday, China and the US have taken fresh shots at each other in their deepening trade war.

First, China announced new tariffs on US goods in response to US levies on China's exports that are set to take effect next month.

Trump responded with a vintage tweet storm, lashing out at China and demanding that US firms stop doing business there. The Dow plunged as markets waited for the next shoe to drop. And drop it did: later in the day Trump announced higher tariffs on nearly everything that China exports to the United States.

Why now? Bear in mind, all of this comes right as Trump is leaving for this weekend's G7 summit in France. That gathering already promised to be a testy one – but with the global economy slowing, the impact of Trump's increasingly nasty trade war with China will add fresh tensions to the occasion.

So where are we in the trade war now? Here is an updated list of what measures each side has imposed to date, and what's next. Both sides have a lot at stake, but from the looks of it, the list isn't going to get shorter any time soon.

When Donald Trump first started talking about buying Greenland last week, we figured it was a weird story with less legs than a Harp seal.

Signal readers, we were wrong. President Trump was so serious about purchasing the autonomous Danish territory that this week he abruptly cancelled a trip to Denmark after the country's prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, labelled the idea "absurd."

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The Amazon in flames – More than 70,000 forest fires are burning in Brazil right now, most of them in the Amazon. That's up 84% over the same period last year, and it's the highest number on record. This is the dry season when farmers burn certain amounts of forest legally to clear farmland. But critics say Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro's efforts to loosen conservation rules have encouraged farmers, loggers, and miners to set more fires, many of them illegally. Bolsonaro – a science skeptic who recently fired the head of the agency that tracks deforestation – says, without proof, that NGOs are setting the fires to embarrass his government. Meanwhile, the EU is holding up a major trade deal with Brazil unless Bolsonaro commits to higher environmental protection standards, including those that affect the Amazon.

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Over the past fifty years, the Amazon rainforest has shrunk by an area equal to the size of Turkey. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Brazilian government supported settlement of the sparsely populated region for security reasons. Since then, huge swaths of the forest -- which is crucial for limiting the world's greenhouse gasses -- have been cleared for farmland used to feed Brazil's population and support its massive agricultural exports. Greater awareness of the environmental impacts in the 1990s produced tighter conservation regulations, though plenty of illegal clearing continues. In recent years, the annual deforestation rate has begun to rise again, and Brazil's new president Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to weaken regulations further in order to support businesses.