Written By: Noureen Ehsan
During the last decade, the threat of terrorism has evolved into a multifaceted complex riddle where various ideological dogmas are colliding violently, turning the world into a battlefield. In this precarious situation, another type of terrorism has emerged quietly which offers the terrorists new ways to inflict serious damage to the critical infrastructures and global economy while remaining completely anonymous in an endless cyberspace.
Today’s cyber technologies and environment have revolutionized everything by presenting unlimited opportunities for interaction, commerce, creativity and even governance, but there is an equally unsafe side of this technological revolution posing threats to everything an individual, society or state does online. Apart from unique technical aspects of cyber domain, there is a temporal factor which is unprecedented. The cyber technologies and ecosystem have evolved so rapidly that everyone in this domain has struggled and is still struggling to keep pace with the challenges of its legal, economic, and societal mechanisms to ensure privacy, confidentiality and security. Satisfactory solutions that balance the priorities of stakeholders will require building partnerships among public and private organizations to chart out new legal frameworks acceptable to global community, establishing mechanisms and incentives to foster routine information sharing and collective defence, and educating all the stakeholders about their roles and responsibilities amidst increasingly sophisticated attacks.
Debate about cyber security goes way beyond this basic premise of seeking mechanisms and frameworks to build a collective defence. From a realist point of view, nation states and national interests like national security are complex variables where nation states strive to practice utmost discretion and privacy about the operational aspects of any kind of national security strategy and cyber security is no exception to this rule. Cyber space is contiguous so is the national security paranoia due to which sometimes even the allies don’t trust each other and that becomes a stumbling block in finding a collective defence against cyber threats.
Within a nation state, cyber domain has challenged the traditional concepts of exclusive internal and external axis of national security. As globalization has erased the boundaries between the nations, cyber space has dismantled this traditional national security architecture where internal and external axis of national security are governed and managed with an exclusive approach. Threats in cyber domain have become universal, demanding a new thought process of national security. Unlike conventional security, in the cyber realm the balance of power has a very different definition and concept. A bigger and more prosperous nation state becomes the most attractive target as it offers a larger target footprint to the enemy’s cyber troopers while the attacker only needs a computer with an active internet connection and in some cases even that is not required.
Within a nation state, cyber domain has challenged the traditional concepts of exclusive internal and external axis of national security. As globalization has erased the boundaries between the nations, cyber space has dismantled this traditional national security architecture where internal and external axis of national security are governed and managed with an exclusive approach. Threats in cyber domain have become universal, demanding a new thought process of national security.
A number of events were triggered in the aftermath of the fall of erstwhile USSR in 1991 which can be considered as the initial precursors of growing role of information technology in the realms of both national and international security. The U.S. troops stationed in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, demonstrated novel information technologies enabling real-time information fusion for quick decision making. Satellite media boom, explosion of new communication technologies and platforms like the internet which enabled the media to cover any global event instantaneously and rise of the hacker community during the early 1990s are a few examples depicting the irregular, unmonitored and non-quantified growth of cyber space which suddenly emerged as a defensive tool and a weapon of attack, simultaneously.
Post 9/11 world is governed by its own rules. For the first time after World War 2, international laws failed to prevent a major war (in Iraq) and now it has become a regional disaster. Iraq War started in 2003 after a massive U.S. propaganda through cyber space about Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) which were not there to be found once Iraq had been captured. Now in Iraq and Syria multiple Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) are fighting as proxies of nation states to secure the turf. Cyber technologies have greatly enhanced the complexity of this crisis as so-called Jihadists (Al-Qaeda, ISIS) have deployed cyber technologies for propaganda, psy-ops and fresh recruitments. Violent ideologies are being exported to the other regions of the world as well and no one has any idea which website, portal or social media group is being run by whom. Every party of war in the Middle East is using cyber space to spread the ‘threat images’ as a tool of political agendas. Once these images get across the internet they immediately start impacting their target audience to become part of this war.
There is a need of an enquiry into the nature of cyber frontiers, their correlation with physical borders, various threats to these frontiers and possible strategy to deter these threats. Understanding this nature is critical in order to understand the interplay of various dynamics of cyber space, national security, international law and international relations.
Securing cyber space has emerged as the biggest national security challenge even for a nation as advanced as the U.S. Recent accusation against Russia by the CIA on hacking the U.S. election 2016 must be considered as a precursor of an era of much more impactful events in near future, where it would be possible to trigger geopolitical and geostrategic changes without indulging into a kinetic conflict.
How can this particular case (if true) of alleged hacking of the U.S. elections 2016 be described? If such events happened in reality then should they be categorized as cybercrime or must these be categorized as an act of cyber terrorism or cyber war? How can a line between cyber war and cyber terrorism be drawn? And most importantly, how can an unlimited and contiguous cyber space be managed by nation states with limited geography and reach? These are complex questions and are getting more compounded after every new cyber space security incident. The threats to national security assessed during the Stuxnet event have become a folklore now, as for the first time the grand strategic impact of cyber threats made its mark!