The Ethics of Nation State Malware


This week it was revealed that British spy agency GCHQ has been accused of using fake LinkedIn profiles injected with malware to compromise the security of Belgium’s national telecoms operator Belgacom. The news stirred the debate around the moral principles of nation state malware and its implications for consumers.

No one should be in any doubt that intelligence agencies are actively engaged in cyber-warfare. The DigiNotar breach a few years ago clearly pointed to an attack instigated by Iran with the primary purpose of spying on its own citizens.

And it is inevitable that the innocent people are just as likely to be the victims as the intended target. Once a virus is released it’s impossible to control who will be the target

The ethical question is not easily answered. Is it ethical to place speeding cameras all over the UK, or to have CCTV throughout London? Is this not just as much an invasion of privacy as a malware application on the Internet?

What would our reaction be if this malware resulted in the detection of a massive pedophile ring because a number of “innocent citizens” happened to be unfortunate enough to visit the GCHQ honeypot? In general we would most likely say “the end justifies the means”. We live our lives as much on the Internet today as we do in the streets, so maybe we need to realize that nothing is done in secret.

The Impact of Nation State Attacks

We should be aware that every government with the means to do so is using technology to attack and defend today. And the challenge that the UK faces is that the internet has unleashed a force where the rules have changed. When Taliban insurgents can use GPS and Google Maps to target British service personnel, the game has changed. It is no longer restricted to those with the financial resources to use the technology.

Ultimately, as consumers we have to understand that the Internet is not an anonymous world where we are free to engage in whatever takes our fancy. Ask yourself the question – where would you not want to be spotted on the street? Then apply the same rules to your Internet behavior.

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