Piracy or Privateers? State sponsored cyber-crime in an age of new frontiers.

Piracy or Privateers? State sponsored cyber-crime in an age of new frontiers.

Piracy or Privateers? State sponsored cyber-crime in an age of new frontiers.
The Russians and the Chinese have them, we almost certainly do as well.

Sir Francis Drake almost ranks as the richest pirate that ever lived second only to “Black Sam Bellamy who tipped the scales at a net worth of US$ 120 million (in 2015 dollars).  Each led a charmed if not risky life of legalised crime plundering foreign ships on the high seas, licensed and applauded by Her Majesty’s government.  Privateering was subsidised state power, the Royal Naval Reserve of the day self-equipped and state licensed to steal from the enemy – on their own terms.

Letter of Marque – Public-Private Partnership

To embark on a life of adventure one required a Letter of Marque which authorised a privateer to attack, capture and bring enemy flagged vessels before admiralty courts for sale.  Plundering the enemy was considered an honourable calling and attracted the rogues of the day, some of whom, such as Sir Francis Drake, went on to be knighted, and to serve as second in command in the defeat of the Spanish Armada.  Privateering in support of a nation-state was viewed favourably by both the participants and the establishment and considered quite separate to Piracy which was considered   Privateering was abolished in the 1856 Paris declaration and is consigned to the history books and Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Age of Exploration lasted from the 15th-17th centuries and represented a time when European vessels sought out new lands and resources for the burgeoning capitalist economy in Europe.  They operated on an unknown frontier, unseen and unencumbered by the states they represented.  There remoteness from ordinary life not only gave them freedom of action, it also gave Her Majesty’s Government a cats paw or proxy Navy.

Modern Privateers?

In the present day, evidence suggests Russian interests aligned but not a part of the Russian state have hacked into the Democratic National Committee, potentially altering the course of history by influencing the US Presidential Election (current evidence here is far from conclusive that the attack was mounted by Russia or Russia aligned interests).  Whether this instance is true or false, the premise that non-state hacking entities aligned with Nation States are likely to be acting as proxy forces in a world where cyber-conflict sits in a closed world few of us comprehend, safe from public scrutiny and to an extent protected by the states they have aligned themselves with.

One wonders whether we sit in a similar world, where the internet is what the oceans used to be and the pirates and the privateers have evolved into  black hat & white hat hackers.  There is a clearly defined line between the State owned resources such as the “Tailored Access Operations” elite NSA hacking group that Edward Snowden was invited to be a part of and transnational criminal hackers acting for self enrichment.  But there is also a grey community of hackers that sit between those groups, co-opted by governments to conduct deniable cyber-operations.

Why is no one hacking Russia or China?

Living in the UK one hears of the Russian, Eastern Bloc and Chinese hacking collectives waging war on our corporations, banks and fellow subjects.  I wonder what the news would say about where the attacks were emanating from if one were sitting in Russia or China – would they describe them as coming from the West.  Is this a two way street, their hackers are attacking us, our hackers are attacking them?  Does it happen, if it is happening why don’t we hear about it?

Typically one hears of hackers being extradited to the US for hacking into their National Security infrastructure.  But there is almost zero media attention on UK persons being detained for hacking into Russian, Eastern Bloc or Chinese national security infrastructure.

Googling the phrase and researching the first few pages of the phrase British person arrested for hacking into Russia reveals no evidence that anyone has ever been arrested or convicted of such a crime.  This suggests that either the US is better at detecting hacker then Russia or that we do not pursue our own hackers focused on Russia as vigorously as we might pursue hackers focused on the US because it serves the UK strategic interest.

When States go  to Cyber-War

Western States use cyber-warfare to achieve their political aims.  Consider the compromise of the Iranian Natanz nuclear facility which introduced the stuxnet virus which caused the uranium centrifuges to Spin out of control retarding the Iranian nuclear programme and encouraging the Iranians to negotiate.

The complexity of the Student virus leads cyber commentators to conjecture that America is the only Cyber Superpower capable of developing it.  Whoever created Stuxnet, cyber-operations are clearly a form of war, a continuation of politics by other means.

Ample evidence exists to prove that in the past non-state actors including criminals, spies and terrorists have been given a level of carte blanche to operate illegally to further their own ends, where those ends are aligned with a nation-states interests, it is likely that these privileges have been or will be extended to hackers too.


What this means is that in a world where cyber-criminals are tacitly supported by governments, including most likely our own, one really is responsible for ones own security.