Asia’s “Patriotic Geeks” Pose Problems

With momentum building for other Asian countries such as Japan to recruit “patriotic geeks” into their own cyber militias, similar to the groups believed to be backed by the Chinese government, Adam Segal writes on The Council on Foreign Relations’ Asia Unbound blog that such developments would hinder – not help – state security in Asia:

The talent concern is real, but addressing the problem through cyber militias would be profoundly destabilizing for the region. Militia members may one day walk out the door and not only use their skill and knowledge against other states without authorization, but may also turn them back on home networks. Military planners would also have to worry, especially during a crisis, that militias might ignore orders or target off-limit networks, increasing the risk of escalation and decreasing ability to signal intent to the adversary.

The plausible deniability of patriotic hackers is one of their biggest selling points; states can claim they know nothing about attacks and can do little to stop them. Technological changes that make attribution easier, or other forms of intelligence that have the same impact, would do a great deal to make cyber militias less attractive to policymakers. In the short term, if regional leaders are not going to fight the urge to mobilize their own militias, they at least need to ensure that they know who they should be talking to on the other side if a crisis breaks out and they must be able establish clear lines of communication. In the longer term, ASEAN or other regional groupings would be wise to promote a norm of state responsibility for cyberattacks emanating from within a country’s borders. As the Atlantic Council’s Jason Healey argues, developing this norm will involve state-to-state negotiations and capacity building as well as diplomatic, economic, intelligence, and, possibly, military responses.

Patriotic geeks might be the answer to a lot of policy challenges. But in terms of cybersecurity, it may be best to either bring them completely into the fold, or keep them at arms length.

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