Hollywood screenwriters couldn’t make it up: That Sony, one of the world’s biggest film producers, would be forced to pull a comedy about the assassination of North Korea’s dictator after a three-week assault by unidentified hackers who leaked sensitive information about the company and corporate officials, before threatening that “the world will be full of fear.” If the suspicions of the American authorities are correct and North Korea is behind this attack, it will probably be the first case where a country has used the weapons of cyberspace to prevent a movie from being screened. It will not, however, be the first display of the effectiveness of the new weapons that have emerged in the murky arena of geopolitics and diplomacy.
In the past few months, there have been attacks on the computers of the White House and the US State Department, with suspicions centering on Russia. The computers of JPMorgan Chase were infiltrated in the summer, while hackers have siphoned details about millions of consumers all over the world to get rich.
The true potential of cyber warfare, however, became abundantly apparent after revelations that the USA and Israel had staged a joint cyber attack against the Iranian nuclear program. In 2008, because of a bug introduced into the computer system, centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear power plant went haywire and broke down. The worm became public in 2010 after it escaped from a Natanz programmer’s computer onto the Internet, where it was spotted by virus hunters who dubbed it Stuxnet. In that year alone, 1,000 of Natanz’s 5,000 centrifuges were damaged, delaying Iran’s nuclear program by 18 months.
According to an exclusive report by David E. Sanger for The New York Times in 2012, the joint US-Israeli program was code-named “Olympic Games.” It was under George W. Bush and was later embraced by Barack Obama. From the onset, however, American officials had expressed fears that employing such methods would make America a target. A number of countries have fallen victim to cyber attacks, including Estonia in 2007, South Korea last year and Saudi Arabia the year before that. Groups like Anonymous and WikiLeaks, and even teenagers, have already illustrated the asymmetrical power of the “electronic warrior.”
As we watch the thaw in US-Cuba relations thanks to old-school diplomacy (including an exchange of imprisoned agents and the mediation of Pope Francis), we must not forget the other tools of diplomacy as Russia is rocked by trade and financial sanctions, by the drop in the price of oil and by the rapid devaluation of the ruble. Meanwhile, one of the biggest companies in the world is regretting its attempt to poke fun at the leader of a small, distant country.
The weapons of diplomacy are no longer what we knew.