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Why the Chinese cyber attack is the ultimate scare story

Obama in Britain, the Queen in Ireland, Kate and Wills in Canada. The news value of such “events” li

News reports seem to inform us every day of a "historic" event. Wills and Kate's forthcoming trip to Canada, the Queen's recent visit to Ireland, and, lest we forget, Obama. It was, we were told, the first time a US president had addressed both houses of parliament in Westminster Hall. Not the first time a US president had addressed both houses of parliament in the Palace of Westminster - Ronald Reagan did that, as did Bill Clinton. Not even the first time a president had addressed both houses of parliament in Westminster Hall. Nelson Mandela did that. But the first time an American president had addressed both houses of parliament in Westminster Hall.

When reports rely on "first time" claims, you know you are in the presence of symbolic news. It isn't that anything happening is significant; it's what the whole event is intended to mean. We love America. We love Obama. He loves us. The world is OK. State visits are all about such symbolism. There is no other particularly good reason for a head of state to parade around another country attending banquets.

You can schedule most of the reporting of a US president's state visit before he arrives. There will be stories about the size of the convoy, the special ambulance, his limousine. There will be something about whether or not his detectives have been given special permission to carry guns in the UK. There are details of the accommodation, photos with the Queen and the "first lady/PM's wife" meeting, with plenty of stuff about dresses and some spurious detail about whether they got on well or not. There are the speeches, the dinners, the handshakes. All signifying pretty much nothing.

Concave image

Symbolic news takes on increasing importance in a world in which national leaders are losing control. The death of Osama Bin Laden was nothing but symbolic. His survival for so long after the 11 September 2001 attacks had symbolised the impotence of all the US soldiers in the world against a threat that was hidden, diversified and technological - the image of modern risk in a globalised world. That the US repeatedly suggested Bin Laden was hiding in a cave was a counter to that symbolism: no hi-tech threat here, just a skulking caveman. The symbolic importance of Bin Laden was such that, if we couldn't see the pictures of him being shot by US soldiers, we could see pictures of the US president and his advisers watching it live on television instead: death by Disney.

Late last month came another greatly symbolic story, the "revelation" by Beijing that it has an "elite cyber-warfare unit", trained to defend China against cyber attack. The Times told us that the so-called Blue Army consists of 30 hand-picked mega-hackers to patrol the new state boundaries of computer networks. China insisted that the squad was defensive, not aggressive. Within hours, the Blue Army was being blamed for stealing data from agencies and firms around the world, including Google, the Pentagon, Nasa, the US navy, Morgan Stanley and the Foreign Office as well as the Treasury. (In 2004, the FBI named the first known Chinese cyber attack Titan Rain - just to stress how international governance has become like a giant game designed by Nintendo.)

The "cyber attack" is the ultimate scare story for our networked age: it is invisible and incomprehensible (to most of us), and could strike anywhere at any time, in any area of your life from air-traffic control to the local nuclear power station or your online bank account. All it lacks is a picture; a phalanx of intense and inscrutable young Chinese people hunkering down in a basement full of computer screens would be ideal. Preferably all wearing blue, like those impassive paramilitaries who shoved their way around London carrying the Beijing Olympic torch three years ago.

We citizens are surprisingly sanguine about cyber crime. There is no accurate data on it and no effective international legislation, due to
jurisdictional issues, legal differences and the difficulty of investigation. In many countries the laws are not up to date. A decade ago, two Filipino men created the "ILOVEYOU" virus, which spread through people's email address books, making it look as if the message had come from friends. It infected millions of computers around the world within days and eventually required parliament and the Pentagon, among others, to shut down email systems to protect themselves. The men who created it from a flat in Manila were identified within days and arrested, but they eventually went unpunished, as there were no laws against that sort of cyber crime in the Philippines at the time.

Safe as houses

States and businesses are wary of confessing to cyber attacks. It underlines their vulnerability, and makes citizens, customers and investors feel insecure. Cyber crime strikes at nations' ability to ensure the security of their own citizens, long thought the fundamental duty of a national government. Even the Convention on Cybercrime, drawn up in 2001 by the Council of Europe (plus Canada, Japan, South Africa and the US, among others) has been ratified by only half the 50 or so countries that signed up to it: the legislation is more symbolic than effective.

As citizens, rather than relying on governments, we routinely hand over our personal financial security to the computer experts at Amazon or NatWest, and trust them to protect us because it is in their commercial interest to do so. We buy internet security packages for use at home without the faintest idea what they are doing - "A threat has been detected and resolved", eek - and cross our fingers, and hope.

And we watch reassuring pictures of the first US president to address both houses of parliament in Westminster Hall, under that hammer-beam roof and amid 900 years of history, and think, well, hopefully that's OK, then.

This article first appeared in the 06 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Are we all doomed?