It would not be hyperbolic to consider the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the Chief Financial Officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, an important milestone in world relations. Wanzhou’s arrest, at the request of the United States, earlier in December 2018, was allegedly due to defrauding institutions in order to breach the US-imposed sanctions on dealing with Iran. In reality, the event is far more complex, and exemplifies a convergence of international diplomacy, military conflict and world finance.
Dr – Hazem El-Refaey:
The consensus is now that the move was intended to target China, rather than Iran. Huawei is not an ordinary company. Huawei claimed to be partially owned by the Chinese government and a central part of the opaque Chinese political and military strategy. The media has suggested that the company might be a ‘Trojan Horse’, intended to invade the infrastructure of global cyber network. This logic has merits. Whilst the name Huawei is generally associated with smartphones, the company has also succeeded in acquiring major global contracts central to the forthcoming G5 digital network, increasing its influence and, as a result, the perception that the company poses cyber security threats. Therefore, the move to arrest Wanzhou suggests greater geopolitical implications and ramifications than may have initially appeared.
However, it is possible that the Americans have overplayed their hand, and that this move has backfired. The hard game triggered a downward slide in the American stock market. The Dow dived, spurred by a decline in Apple’s share price, which lost more than 30% of its value in less than four weeks, perhaps due to a fear of Chinese retaliation. In fact, Apple recently have blamed ‘economic weakness’ in China for the company’s slowing sales. Chinese political leadership were instantly involved following Wanzhou’s arrest. The American Defense Secretary, James Mattis, resigned in the following two weeks. Although he referenced the US decision to pull out of Syria as his motivation to resign, the full reasons for his resignation remain unclear. However, it is worth noting that his resignation letter referenced the need to remain ‘resolute and unambiguous’ toward Russia and China.
The Huawei scandal is particularly relevant as cybersecurity threats become more pertinent in the modern Western world. It is no secret that the modern Western world is best described as ‘cyber reliant’. It is hard to imagine the world without computers and the internet, and vulnerability of cyber systems is of particular concerns for many countries and their infastructures. Important international airports, such as Heathrow, JFK and Charles Du Gaulle exemplify this clearly. Hundreds of thousands of passengers and aircrafts take off in safety with timely precision thanks to complicated and complex computer-based numerical calculation programmes, which are increasingly replacing human factors. The vulnerability of these systems is clearly demonstrated by the recent crisis in Gatwick, in which drones, previously considered fairly innocuous and not very technologically advance, grounded hundreds of flights. Equally, it is also impossible to imagine the New York Stock Exchange, where millions of transactions are taking place across currencies between sellers and buyers who only meet on the screens of supercomputers.
In sum, the huge computers, the fiber optic networks and mobile communications have become the collective memory- the mind, heart and muscles of advanced industrial societies. Computers and technology manage countries electricity grid, distribute water, and the flow of information.
Politicians and financiers encouraged the emergence of a computer-based e-community everywhere. Technology and global interconnectedness created new mechanisms for wealth creation, and brought about significant cost reductions by shrinking the need, and often replacing, human labour. However, as the Internet, and its reliance and integration, evolved in the United States and Europe, much of the rest of the world was left behind. Even Russia and China, lagged behind for several decades.
As a result, the potential for breaches in this new ‘e-world’ has grown into a significant security gap in the heart of the Western world. Electronic attacks and cyber piracy have become increasingly prevalent. Significantly,for a example, the mysterious blackout of the New York Stock Exchange that occurred in July 2015, when the activity of the American stock market stopped for almost a full day. This occurred simultaneously with another serious failure affecting United Airlines central computers. It forced the company to alter thousands of trips. The Wall Street Journal website also went offline the same day, suggesting further nefarious activity. Similarly, another major disruption affected all American airports two years ago, on the 2nd January 2017, the busiest day of the year for American passengers, an apparent ‘glitch’ disrupted thousands of flights and passengers.
Although these instances could be claimed to be simple ‘glitches’ rather than cyber attacks, other less subtle events have occurred. For example, during the dispute between Russia and Estonia in 2007. Estonia is a model country promoted as an example of the progress that could be made if a country is separated from Russia. A country with a limited population turned into a country with one of the most advanced e-governments. In the midst of a complex dispute with Russia, Estonia was surprised by complex electronic attack, paralyzing its government administrations. Similarly, during Russia’s conflict with the Ukraine, the Internet networks of many Ukrainian institutions were cut off, as well as hundreds of telephone lines connecting the Ukrainian leaders. These examples go beyond the so-called ‘e-war of eavesdropping’ and represent an attempt to undermine the otherwise spying on enemy armies by other electronic means, by breaking into civilian institutions of another country.
In the Middle East, the so-called Electronic Syrian army apparently hacked into the New York Times website and uploaded an image of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This raised questions around whether the Syrian army possessed such competencies and daring to storm the site of an American newspaper? There seemed to be similar incidents during Hezbollah’s 2006 battle with Israel, when Hezbollah supposedly remotely cut off the personal phone lines of Israeli military leaders. The question also arises here as to whether Hezbollah possesses such high technical capabilities.
The most important question in all this remains who owns this electronic intrusion technology? Are they really pirate groups or is it a superpower that has realized and recognized the potential of this Achilles’ Heel in the heart of modern Western civilization and decided to develop it into a strategic deterrent weapon in silence and for years?
Is it Russia, which has not been shy about leaving many traces, to warn its adversaries that it is Russia that has carried out these threats, incursions and minor skirmishes? Is it a declaration that they own what is most violent and dangerous and that they are capable of threatening the world with Electronic Hiroshima !?
The ramifications of this are alarming, wide ranging and dangerous. How can Western powers respond? Can they retaliate? Suppose they hacked into Russian and Chinese institutions, what would the repercussions and consequences be? Probably not much, particularly in comparison to what could befall the rest of the world, which is all intertwined with the United States, mainly through large scale, profound globalisation of capitalism. If Western decision-makers realised that, would they transcend Russia’s and China’s red lines again? Would they seek new political deals reflecting the new realities and would they be more careful not to violate international legality?
The world has lived through the phase of nuclear terror and its threat acting as a deterrent. Today, we live in a new age, and are threatened by an Electronic Hiroshima, that no politician, including those in Downing Street and the White House, can ignore.
Hazem El-Rafaey is a practicing clinician in the United Kingdom, He regularly contributes to the prestigious national newspaper, Al-Ahram, which has a wide readership throughout the Arabic speaking world.