Is the Distinction Important?

The Wall Street Journal ran an article by Danny Yadron and Siobhan Gorman earlier in the week that talked about the penetration by Russian hackers of Federal government computers and those of companies doing business with the government. It’s an important article, and I recommend you read it all, but I want to focus on a couple of statements made in it that go to the heart of why we’re having so much trouble dealing with our enemies.

The statements are these:

A US official said differentiating between Russian criminal hackers and government hackers is difficult because the government uses cybersurveillance tools created by criminal groups and criminals use tools developed by the government.


“It [the recent hacking of JP Morgan Chase & Co] looks to be criminal and of Russian origin,” the US official said. But when it comes to gauging whether that criminal element is working with the government, “you’re back into that gray area. You really can’t tell.”

Russia is a totalitarian state, for all that it has “elections.” All the modern, cool totalitarian states do this anymore. As such a regime, the “criminal” hackers are limited in doing what they do without the Russian government’s active condoning of that behavior. This is further substantiated by the ubiquitousness of the free exchange of tools between these hackers and their government.

Whether any particular hack job is done by hackers or by formal agents of the Russian government, both are working for the benefit of Russia and for (not only to) the detriment of us.

Misunderstandings like these, of the fundamental character of certain of our enemies, are at the heart of why we’re having so much trouble defending ourselves from them and ultimately of defeating them.

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