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Volt Typhoon and the shambles of U.S. security



Editor's note: Radhika Desai, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

In early 2023, the U.S. and its Five Eyes allies began alleging that a Chinese state-sponsored hacker called "Volt Typhoon" was deviously leaving undetectable "scripts" (rather than detectable files) that "live off the land" (use resources within the host computer system), and "hide in plain sight." They lurked in the digital networks of key U.S. transport, utility and other infrastructures, waiting to strike at an opportune moment.

Chinese authorities responded with a report whose robust evidence showed that Volt Typhoon is actually ransomware of the sort that DarkSide deployed against colonial pipeline in 2021, when an emergency had to be declared in 17 states to secure fuel supplies and a ransom of $4.4 million had to be paid. However, rather than cooperating with other countries, including China, to solve the problem of cyber crime, the U.S. conducted a media smear campaign against China instead.

The report also correctly pointed out that while, in an election year, the two parties were competing to be hawkish on China, cyber security companies were enjoying a bonanza of contracts to boost security for networks against attack. As the cyber cognoscenti know, U.S. corporations deliberately leave in bugs so they can then be paid to debug them.

Of course, U.S. corporations also benefit from the stepped-up intelligence operations which also result from these false narratives. After all, the line between public and private in the intelligence field, as in so many others, is blurred and not only do cyber corporations control vast quantities of the data intelligence agencies are interested in, but a considerable amount of intelligence work is also contracted to them by the country's richest customer, the U.S. federal government.

"China cyber threat" narratives also serve to expand the U.S.'s sprawling intelligence apparatus. As recently as 2008, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) expanded the National Security Agency's (NSA) power to gather information on U.S. and foreign nationals, leading, as Edward Snowden revealed back in 2013, to a vast expansion of NSA information gathering.

The FISA Section 702 was set to expire in 2023 and, not co-incidentally, the Volt Typhoon story was concocted to ensure renewal. It did, though only until April 2024 and the story was put to work earlier this year. Since Congress extended it to April 2026, undoubtedly Volt Typhoon or another such story will be doing the rounds around then.

There are at least four reasons why the rest of the world should sit up and take notice of false narratives like Volt Typhoon. First, the resulting intensified U.S. surveillance violates the privacy of nearly everyone on the planet. While U.S. civil liberties activists have been partially successful in limiting the application of these powers to U.S. citizens, the rest of the world does not even have that limited protection.

The Capitol building in Washington, D.C., the United States, March 21, 2023. /Xinhua
The Capitol building in Washington, D.C., the United States, March 21, 2023. /Xinhua

The Capitol building in Washington, D.C., the United States, March 21, 2023. /Xinhua

Secondly, the false narratives about the dangers of other countries, principally China these days, add to the already dangerous instability in the world by creating unnecessary hostilities, while preventing real problems from being solved.

Thirdly, the hypocrisy of the U.S. in falsely accusing China of cyberwarfare vitiates the atmosphere of international relations, increasing mistrust. While making false accusations against China, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, the U.S. has not only conducted the Stuxnet cyberattack on Iran, but has also planned many others. Recently, moreover, the U.S. military admitted to conducting cyberwarfare in the Ukraine conflict.

Relatedly, the U.S. accuses China of being an authoritarian "surveillance state" when U.S. cyber corporations routinely share their vast hoards of data with their government so intensively and intricately as to be practically part of the intelligence apparatus.

Finally, the Volt Typhoon narrative is a symptom of a much deeper problem. The U.S. military and intelligence apparatus are not only exceptionally large, but they are also, arguably, out of control. The expansion of the U.S. military is driven not by any conception of the security of the U.S. and its citizens, not even by the imperial needs of U.S. corporations but by the false narratives they necessarily generate and for the profit of those corporations handed contracts by the Pentagon. The resulting mixture of motives explains the long record of failure of the world's most expensive military as well as its over-the-top militarism.

Similarly, the expansion of the security apparatus is driven, again, not by the intelligence needs of securing the U.S. territory and population but by the U.S. corporations' need to acquire and retain power over other states and societies, using their own false narratives the apparatus necessarily generates and by the ability of certain information and communications technology corporations to profit. This mixture of motives explains why the U.S.'s sprawling intelligence apparatus fails at critical moments, such as on 9/11, while more or less single-handedly making the world the dangerous place it is.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com. Follow @thouse_opinions on X, formerly Twitter, to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

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