Constant but Camouflaged, Flurry of Cyberattacks Offers Glimpse of New Era

The world woke up on Monday to revelations of a sort that have become disconcertingly routine.

Chinese hackers had breached governments and universities in a yearslong campaign to steal scientific research, according to a U.S. Justice Department indictment.

Separately, several governments, including the Biden administration, accused Beijing of hiring criminal hackers to infiltrate the world’s largest companies and governments for profit.

Only hours before, a consortium of news agencies reported that governments worldwide have used spyware sold by an Israeli company to monitor journalists, rights workers, opposition politicians and foreign heads of state.

The rush of allegations represent what cybersecurity and foreign policy experts say is a new normal of continuous, government-linked hacking that may now be a permanent feature of the global order.

Governments have become cannier at exploiting the connectivity of the digital era to advance their interests and weaken their enemies. So have freelance hackers who often sell their services to states, blurring the line between international cyberconflict and everyday crime.

Hacking has become a widely used tool of statecraft, oppression and raw economic gain. It is cheap, powerful, easy to outsource and difficult to trace. Anyone with a computer or smartphone is vulnerable.

And hacking bears a trait common to the most destabilizing weapons in history, from medieval siege devices to nuclear arms: It is far more effective for offensive than defensive use.

Still, after a decade in which military planners worried that cyberconflict might lead to the real thing, the emerging dangers of this new era are somewhat different than once imagined.

Rather than resembling a new kind of war, hacking is coming to play a role in the 21st century much like espionage did in the 20th, analysts and former officials believe. It is a never-ending cat-and-mouse game played by small states and great powers alike. Adversarial, even hostile, but tolerated within limits. Sometimes punished or prevented, but assumed to be constant.

But there is one important difference, experts say. The tools of espionage are mostly wielded by governments against other governments. The…