Computer Hacking: The New Public Diplomacy Tool

Tuesday, October 22nd 2013

As the practice of public diplomacy increasingly moves online, more malevolent practices are doing the same. I'm thinking in particular of the so-called Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), a mysterious group that has attracted worldwide attention by hacking into the websites of such high-profile targets as The New York Times, BBC, Twitter, Reuters, and the U.S. Marine Corps, to name just a few.

The computer attacks are ostensibly in defense of the Syrian government, with the goal of influencing public opinion in support of its national interests, which is one of the definitions of public diplomacy. Yet respectable diplomats wouldn’t engage in such activities.

So who would? And, even more important, whose national interests are they promoting?

If you were to ask computer experts where the best hackers are around the world, nobody will mention Syria. Two countries they will mention, however, are Russia and Iran, which both happen to be deeply invested in the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

When anti-government rebels were gaining momentum a couple of months ago and President Obama appeared on the verge of taking military action in Syria, SEA was also on the attack, hitting websites and warning against U.S. intervention. But when the U.S. president suddenly backed down and Russian President Vladimir Putin took on a leading role that ended up buying time for the Assad regime and turning the crisis into an extended WMD investigation, SEA suddenly went silent. The pressure was off Assad’s regime – and off its allies Russia and Iran as well.

We may never know if the hackers in the "Syrian Electronic Army" are Syrian, or Russian, or Iranian, or any other nationality, because the Internet is an easy place to create trouble without leaving any tracks, or by leaving deceptive tracks. Anybody could have done what they did. But if they get away with it, this may be only the beginning of lawless regimes using computer hacking attacks to advance their strategic objectives.


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David S. Jackson

David Jackson is a veteran journalist and former U.S. government official with extensive multimedia communications experience in domestic and international markets. authors name for more info

Author: David S Jackson

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Interesting observation, but part of a bigger issue

Cybersecurity issues deserve more scrutiny by public diplomatists than they're getting.  The topic is complicated, and David has written about only one aspect.  I think the hottest button right now is not unlawful attacks on news organizations, which all legitimate national leaders can oppose, but the changing norms of government intrusion.  The leaks by Edward Snowden have changed the U.S. narrative about the "Freedom to Connect" in ways that that threaten American interests in Internet governance, and also the reputations of American technology brands.  And our public diplomacy staffers have no decent talking points.

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