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The invisible threat to global peace

The invisible threat to global peace

One of the biggest threats to 21st century international peace is invisible. It recognizes no borders and knows no rules. It can penetrate everything from the secrets of your government to the settings of your appliances. This is, of course, the threat of cyberattacks and cyberwarfare.

During the coronavirus pandemic, cyberattacks have surged, according to watchdogs. This isn't just Zoom-bombing or scams. It's also a wave of schemes, likely by national intelligence agencies, meant to steal information about the development and production of vaccines. Attacks on the World Health Organization soared five-fold early in the pandemic.


Why is the threat of cyberwarfare growing, and why isn't more being done to stop it?

Hacking is increasingly the business of nation-states. Not so long ago, hackers were mainly hooded freelancers sitting in their basements stealing credit card numbers. Now they are increasingly the employees of national intelligence services.

Why are countries investing more and more in the cyber game? For one thing, hacking is a cheap way to level the playing field with larger global rivals. For North Korea or Iran, you no longer need a powerful military in order to project power across the globe. You just need a laptop and a few good programmers. What's more, unlike missile launches or invasions, the targets can't always tell where a cyberattack has come from. Plausible deniability comes in handy, especially when attacking someone bigger than you.

Targets are getting fatter. As countries build out 5G networks, data flows will increase massively, as more than a billion more people move online over the next decade. The so-called "internet of things," the network in which everything from your watch to your (potentially self-driving) car to your refrigerator are being hooked up to the internet. (That said, huge gaps in internet access persist, as we wrote here.)

There are no rules. Conventional war has rules about whom you can and cannot attack, occupy, or imprison. They aren't always respected or enforced — but the cyber realm has very few rules, mainly because the world's major cyber powers don't want them. If you're Vladimir Putin, hacking has brought dividends that your flagging economy and mediocre military cannot. If you're the US, you're historically wary of any binding rules about the conduct of war. (If you're Gulliver, why tie yourself to the ground for the sake of Lilliput?) So, while various groups of countries have, under UN auspices, started to develop "norms" – they are not binding.

Unfortunately, it may take a catastrophe to create those rules. So far, the damage inflicted by hackers has mostly been economic. In 2017, the NotPetya virus, which targeted Ukraine, quickly spread around the globe, inflicting $10 billion worth of pain. It was, so far, the worst cyberattack in history.

But it's not hard to imagine a cyberattack on a hospital network, a power grid, or a dam that kills thousands of people and forces even more from their homes. How can those responsible be called to account? And what would it take to make future such attacks much less likely?

Will it take an event that inflicts that much human damage for governments and tech companies to sit down and hammer out cyber-rules of the road?

Microsoft announced earlier this year the launch of a new United Nations representation office to deepen their support for the UN's mission and work. Many of the big challenges facing society can only be addressed effectively through multi-stakeholder action. Whether it's public health, environmental sustainability, cybersecurity, terrorist content online or the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, Microsoft has found that progress requires two elements - international cooperation among governments and inclusive initiatives that bring in civil society and private sector organizations to collaborate on solutions. Microsoft provided an update on their mission, activities for the 75th UN General Assembly, and the team. To read the announcement from Microsoft's Vice President of UN Affairs, John Frank, visit Microsoft On The Issues.

Now that Joe Biden is officially US president, leaders from around the world would like a word with him — but where will he make his first international trip?

After a tumultuous four years, many countries are now clamoring for a face-to-face with President Biden. That includes allies who felt abandoned by Trump's "America First" presidency, as well as adversaries with thorny issues on the agenda. We check in on who's pitching him hardest on a near-term state visit.

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Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for the Eurasia Group, shares his insights on what to expect from President Biden's first 100 days:

It's Inauguration Day. And you can see behind me the Capitol Building with some of the security corridor set up that's preventing people like me from getting too close to the building, as Joe Biden gets sworn in as our 46th president. Historic day when you consider that you've got Kamala Harris, the first woman vice president, the first woman of color to be vice president.

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On Wednesday, Joe Biden will become president because eighty-one million Americans, the highest tally in US history, voted to change course after four years of Donald Trump's leadership. Like all presidents, Biden and his vice president, Kamala Harris, take office with grand ambitions and high expectations, but rarely has a new administration taken power amid so much domestic upheaval and global uncertainty. And while Biden has pledged repeatedly to restore American "unity" across party lines — at a time of immense suffering, real achievements will matter a lot more than winged words.

Biden has a lot on his agenda, but within his first 100 days as president there are three key issues that we'll be watching closely for clues to how effectively he's able to advance their plans.

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Kamala Harris was sworn in today as the first woman Vice President of the United States. That means she's only a heartbeat away from occupying the Oval Office — and could well be the Democratic candidate to replace Joe Biden if the 78-year-old president decides to not run for reelection in 2024. Should Harris — or another woman — become US president soon in the future, that'll (finally) put America on par with most of the world's top 20 economies, which have already had a female head of state or government at some point in their democratic history. Here we take a look at which ones those are.

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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