Hacking Is the New Cold War

Hackers have come to dominate global statecraft, and barely anyone is paying attention

Ben Buchanan
OneZero
Published in
7 min readFeb 25, 2020

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Shadowy hands write on a computer keyboard, symbolizing hackers and data security.
Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images

“HOW MUCH YOU PAY FOR ENEMIES CYBER WEAPONS?”

The question was posed online with no preamble and in broken English. It sounded like a prank, a thought experiment, or an internet troll shouting into the digital ether. It was none of these things.

This message, posted in 2016 by an account calling itself “theshadowbrokers,” began a series of events that would send shock waves through United States intelligence agencies and beyond. During a year-long escapade, the Shadow Brokers released documents that exposed how hackers working on behalf of the American government had penetrated networks around the world to delay, disrupt, and defang their targets. Their purloined files revealed that hacking was a fundamental, though mostly secret, tool of American statecraft, one deployed clandestinely against foe and friend alike.

The Shadow Brokers released more than just documents. They revealed a collection of hacking tools amassed and guarded by the National Security Agency, or NSA, that were so powerful that American hackers likened them to “fishing with dynamite.” And now this dynamite had suddenly been made available to anyone for free.

The result was predictably disastrous. Hackers from authoritarian regimes and criminal groups repurposed the exposed code for use in their own devastating cyber attacks. They rank as the most destructive hacks in history, wreaking more than $14 billion of damage, infecting hundreds of thousands of computers, and interfering with businesses across the globe. American spy agencies that were accustomed to stealing other’s secrets and penetrating others’ intelligence operations did not know what had hit them. The United States government began a massive counterintelligence investigation into the Shadow Brokers, an inquiry made much more difficult by the careful steps the group had taken to cover its tracks. Though it has not been confirmed, leaks from the investigation suggest the Shadow Brokers were Russian in origin. America’s loss was Russia’s gain.

The Shadow Brokers’ data dump and the attacks that followed were the culmination of an unmistakable trend: over two decades, the…

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Ben Buchanan
OneZero
Writer for

Ben Buchanan is a professor at Georgetown University and is the author of two books on cybersecurity, including The Hacker and the State.