The spread of COVID-19 has reinforced digital transformation, a trend that was already growing stronger, accelerating it by approximately seven years. Living in an increasing contactless world has enhanced day-to-day tasks' efficiency and effectiveness and has generally improved the quality of our lives. However, these far-reaching developments did not only produce positive outcomes but also shed light on numerous vulnerabilities and threats. Indeed, technological assaults represent one of the main challenges of the 21st century, which led scholars to classify cyber warfare as the fifth type of war, alongside ground, maritime, space and aerial combat. In line with this, the 2020 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report has recently underlined how state-aligned actors have become the second most influential perpetrator of computerized violations - a trend that increased in the last years. In the past decade, there have been numerous attacks such as the deployment of Stuxnet in 2010, a virus aimed at disrupting the Iranian nuclear program; Russia's assault to Ukraine with BlackEnergy, a combination of malware aimed at compromising Ukrainian media; or, in recent times, the intrusion to the United Nations' servers.
In a contactless and increasingly digitalised world, the ability to understand this issue, identify the main aggressors and create a proactive response that combines both a defensive and offensive stance will take on more and more importance.
Broadly, cyberwarfare is defined as "the use of technology to attack the computer and information networks of another nation and (...) it can cause harm comparable to actual warfare." These types of offenses have become common due to the nature of the environment we live in - the "information technology environment" - an interconnected realm in which information represents the most important resource and can be used to damage or disrupt a country. Because of its non-material characteristic, cyber-attacks cannot be detected or predicted and make it very difficult to trace back the main perpetrator. Furthermore, the effectiveness of digital aggressions is reinforced by the fact that they are not restricted by physical boundaries; they can be carried out at any time; and, are very easy and cheap to coordinate.
Even though virtual weapons are being invented by numerous actors such as the United Kingdom, France or Israel, the leading countries competing in this arena are the US, States, Russia and China.
The United States has the greatest budget compared to other intelligence agencies and has, without a doubt, conducted the largest intelligence operations. Indeed, on a technological and innovation level, the United States continues to be the leading player within the cyber industry. However, scholars have argued that this gap is slowly closing down and that countries such as China and Russia are gradually overtaking American expertise. Critics have pointed out that the US is losing ground against their rivals because of a strategic mistake that entails focusing more on deterrence and defence instead of adopting an offensive logic.
Indeed, America’s inaction has allowed other governments to prosper and continuously improve their high-tech devices. Under these circumstances, since 1996, Russia has waged cyber warfare against the United States and, more generally, the world. These constant attacks stem from the Kremlin's belief that Moscow is imprisoned in a never-ending struggle for survival against internal and external forces and therefore, has to protect itself. As a result, opposed to the United States, the Russian approach focuses on offensive actions and the idea of cyber sovereignty as a tool to control society's political ideas and the government's stability. This position closely resembles China's attitude vis-a-vis the numeric realm. Indeed, this affinity was further confirmed by Moscow's and Beijing’s signing of two international treaties in 2015 on cybersecurity and 2019 on illegal online content. These two countries' closeness on this matter reinforces the vulnerability of American information leadership. As a matter of fact, following the information attack against Washington's institutions, Russia aggressive demeanour has been labelled as "Joe Biden's biggest foreign policy headache", proving once more the relevance of Russia in this domain.
Lastly, another key player in the information space is China who defined cyberspace as a "new pillar of economic and social development, and a new domain of national security". Indeed, Beijing accords it great importance and continuously attempts to close the technological capability gap with the United States. Furthermore, China regards digital supremacy as leverage to tower above the international arena by becoming a super-power and considers it as crucial as territorial dominance. The most apparent deployment of this approach is seen in the Great Firewall of China, a governmental filter crucial to preserve the authoritarian regime, that imposes strict censorship to dissident opinions and foreign websites. The exploitation of computerised means is viewed by the Chinese leadership in a holistic perspective - alongside political, economic and social measures - as a way to persist in the struggle for survival from external and internal foes. In line with this logic, in 2014 President Xi Jinping asserted there is "no national security without cyber security". It can be deducted that the significance China attributes to the information space will lead its government to develop new strategies and implement new weapons that might allow it to catch up to the United States' digital superiority.
To conclude, the intangible nature of information is both its greatest power and its greatest weakness, allowing nations to easily strike but simultaneously be open to retaliation. This situation generates an insecure environment that promotes competition among states. As a result, the significance of cyber-warfare in the future should not be underestimated. It will undeniably play a pivotal role in states' foreign policies and international competition for supremacy. The weight of detection and prevention of digital attacks and the spreading of disinformation will need to be reevaluated to guarantee the governments' security.
Written by Cinzia Saro
Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.