The image most people have of the world of espionage spans an intriguingly varied cast of contrasting personalities. It includes the colorful, the creepy, the beautiful but also the deceptively ordinary. It features a sexy Mata Hari and Christine Keeler. It stretches across history from Christopher Marlowe to the Cambridge Five, from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. And most people retain the image of the world-weary Cold War spies that have populated the novels of Graham Greene and John le Carré and the movies inspired by them.
The advent of the internet has significantly transformed the landscape of spy-duggery. To be a spy used to require a solid education followed by intensive behavioral training and cross-cultural awareness. But in contrast with the past, the people identified as spies these days tend to be nerds: hackers, digital pirates and cyber-spies. Just as drone operators sitting in a remote location operating what resembles a video game console have increasingly replaced the soldier on the battlefield, the spies in today’s news are faceless operators. Their personalities are unknown and biographies singularly devoid of color and drama.
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The picture becomes even more complex when we consider how the stories told about the cyber-spies emerge in the media. The source tends to be a government exposing them. But with so little substance to expose other than designating hidden lines of code, the public can’t even be sure that a newly-identified spy is real. And given that any clever coder motivated enough to rise to the challenge can hack the most secure target, the act that is identified as espionage may just be a feat of coding prowess by a teenager seeking to impress a few cyber-friends.
We must not forget the need of some politicians in democratic nations to raise the alarm from time to time either to justify exceptional security measures they wish to impose, possibly for other reasons, or simply to prove to the electorate how vigilant they are in defending their vulnerable nation. In such circumstances, decoding the political intent behind incidents caused by coding becomes a major challenge. It is in such a context that, over the past week, the governments of the US and the UK have signaled at least two cases of spying by everyone’s favorite enemies in treachery: Russia and China.
In the harvest of spy alerts from the past week, there was also what has become the obligatory mention of Russian meddling in Western elections (the Scottish independence referendum of 2014). But in the two contemporary cases that made the headlines, the goal turned out not to be the usual military, electoral or cultural goal (“sowing doubt” and “creating confusion”) but medical. The spies in question were seeking to hack research into the responses to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
According to The Guardian, the US Justice Department has indicted two Chinese hackers “for seeking to steal Covid-19 vaccine research” and other acts of industrial espionage. “Justice Department officials said Li [Xiaoyu] and Dong [Jiazhi] targeted biotech companies in California, Maryland, Massachusetts and elsewhere but did not appear to have actually compromised any Covid-19 research.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Allow an idea, concept, process or object to escape from the hands of a person or institution that has been jealously hoarding the idea, concept, process or object with a view to reaping the maximum profit from it
The message that nothing was compromised will reassure the public. But, as often in these cases, the motivation and the supposed agency of the Chinese government are implied rather than proven. With its typical lack of clarity, CNN clarifies: “While the indictment does not specify if the hackers had been working at the behest of the Chinese government as they targeted the coronavirus projects, senior national security officials have been warning of Chinese government attempts to steal coronavirus research from US institutions for months.”
In other words, much like Russiagate, if “national security figures” warned that something might be initiated by an identified agent (the Chinese government) and then something (but not exactly the thing they feared) does seem to happen, the conclusion requires no further investigation. That is exactly how conspiracy theories are built and justified, but it is also how the best scoops in the media are constructed.
In the world of geo-diplomatic intelligence spawned by the Cold War and continued by all nations who can afford it ever since, spying, hacking and spreading disinformation have become a kind of operational norm. This means that whenever a political leader needs to create a scare, there will always be one available for immediate exploitation. Over the past 70 years, alarms about spying and foreign meddling only burst into the media at moments in which leaders judge it expedient to draw such incidents to the public’s attention. In the midst of an intractable pandemic that has caused severe political grief to the leaders of the US and the UK, this is one of those moments.
Most of these cases produce mild diplomatic incidents that may have immediate pragmatic consequences but rarely alter the balance of power or degenerate into forms of durable conflict. In today’s case, pitting China against the US, after the closure of the Chinese Consulate in Houston, the consequences appear to be far from negligible. It is, after all, an election year in the US and Donald Trump’s chances of getting a new four-year lease on the White House are rapidly dwindling. This may be just the first act of a four-month drama or an alternative scenario — alongside the Israel-Iran conflict — for Trump to have the tail to wag the dog.
With the ultimate prospect of an intercontinental war, no one in the media seems to notice what is special and different about the idea of hacking research on COVID-19 treatments, cures and vaccines. That is because both the media and politicians have failed to ask the basic question: Why would anyone want access to urgent medical research?
In a rational world in which nearly 8 billion people find themselves assailed by fear of contamination, accompanied by the gutting of their economies and the violent transformation of their way of life, research on treatments and cures should logically take the form of a universal collaborative project spontaneously shared among all competent experts and researchers across the globe. Instead, we are passively witnessing a competition driven solely by the profit-motive of a few.
The real question is: Why isn’t this research already being shared? Why must it be hacked? Everyone knows the answer to that question. It is too obvious, too much a part of the landscape to mention. That is why they dare not even ask the question or assess the consequences. The winner of the race expects to be handsomely rewarded, benefiting from a monopolistic position. And the nation that harbors the winner will be the first to exploit it, with the option of hoarding.
That is how today’s world order works and everyone seems to accept it as normal, even in these far from normal times. It’s a unified ideological system that governs both geopolitics and the economy. Competition, profit and what Thomas Piketty has called the “sacralization of property,” including industrial property, are the pillars of our historical heritage from the industrial age.
Secrets permit monopolies. Monopolies guarantee excessive profit. The rule of the game is that researchers on one side of the world must be unaware of the progress of their colleagues elsewhere. May the best researcher win. Yet this not only slows down progress toward a satisfactory solution, but it also increases the risk that the winning solution may be flawed or incomplete.
In today’s world, sharing means compromise. But that is deemed unacceptable for a simple reason: Compromise means being compromised. Totally unacceptable.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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