A capital city is paralysed by the failure of its electricity supply. A nuclear power station suffers meltdown. Banks go haywire and cash machines run dry. No one can have missed the nightmare scenarios associated with cyber-attacks and their potential to wreak havoc on a networked society. But all the focus on these obvious calamities risks distracting us from what is actually happening. Instead of trying to inflict physical destruction or general mayhem, the signs are that the West’s most sophisticated adversaries are using their high-tech tools in more subtle and insidious ways. Take Russia’s attempt to influence the US election campaign. The lengths to which the Kremlin is going to help Donald Trump and discredit Hillary Clinton are remarkable. The repeated hacks of the Democratic National Committee – which bear all the hallmarks of Russian intelligence – are designed to inflict maximum damage on Mrs Clinton, notably by driving as many wedges as possible between her and much of the Democratic party.
There was the deluge of 20,000 stolen emails, carefully released just before the Democratic convention, showing how senior party figures had tried to thwart the Bernie Sanders campaign. Then came the hacks of the Clinton Foundation, apparently designed to unearth damaging material on the candidate herself. Along the way, Russian hackers even established a fake fundraising website for Mrs Clinton’s campaign, designed to entrap ordinary Democrats into giving away login information and email addresses.
Political espionage targeted against candidates for high office is, of course, as old as the hills. The new twist in 2016 is how the information has been made public, with the obvious aim of tipping the balance of the election in favour of Mr Trump.
Then, this week, hackers calling themselves the “Shadow Brokers” claimed to have stolen digital tools used by the US National Security Agency to break into foreign computer networks. Experts think they are authentic, and while some believe the culprit is an NSA mole, others suspect Russian involvement. Again unusually, the tools were posted publicly online, suggesting that their aim was to discredit or embarrass their owners.