The geopolitics of cybersecurity is the knot which connects privacy, cyber-crime, espionage and deniability. It is zero sum: One country’s gain is another’s loss. In the game of cybersecurity, the winner gets total security and the losers end up with criminals running rampant. So far, the results have been mixed at best and mostly disastrous i.e., a security fiasco.

It’s a little like a military strategist who, when making plans for battle, must consider not just the capabilities of his or her own army but those of potential allies and enemies, even potential neutrals and bystanders. The same is true with regard to cybersecurity threats.

Up until now, national disagreements and conflicts have not had a geographical component. Technology changed that. Cyber-attacks are able to be traced back to their source, so the nation behind them can be held responsible. An old geopolitical issue, like the control of resources through pipelines, can now take on a cyber component, and if you want to prevent someone else from attacking your country’s pipeline using a cyber-weapon, you’d better have advanced cyber capabilities yourself.

The new world order continually evolves, new security concerns, political circumstances, and subsequent technological implications arise. Reports of  Russian security services knocking out critical infrastructure systems in Ukraine as they did in 2015, or about organizations like the NSA stealing millions of emails from around the world only only go on to prove this.

Nonetheless, it’s true that all of these incidents involve some degree of geopolitics, and cyberwarfare has been an element of international politics since, well, computers existed.  Competition for cybersecurity supremacy is defined by two features. Firstly, most countries have invested heavily in both offensive and defensive cyber capabilities. Secondly, this competition is played out in the domain of cyberspace rather than in direct clashes between opponents.

It asks, for example, whether cyberspace should be under the control of a single world government or left as it is with many national governments both defending and policing cyberspace. Should there be cooperation between the two groups or hostility? Should each country have a monopoly on cyber defence within its borders or be allowed to implement any sort of system it likes?

It’s difficult to get a good sense of the overall picture. We don’t have reliable numbers on the size of the cybercriminal underground economy or any way to identify and quantify its activities, let alone judge their impact on national security. There are probably thousands of attackers, and they’re operating behind political and financial protections that allow them to act with impunity in many cases.

Moreover, cybercrime is inherently international in three ways. First, malicious hackers are dispersed across national borders, and they frequently work for profit rather than any national cause. Second, the Internet — and particularly the World Wide Web — is inherently international in reach and free of substantial government regulation. Third, successful attacks against nationally based targets can be executed from afar by remote attackers; it hardly matters whether you’ve been targeted by a Chinese or Russian hacker at this point in the game.

Cyber threats vary not in sophistication, but rather by the nature of the players involved. The various elements or players that are dominating the encryption elements of geopolitics are; nation-state’s policy makers, law enforcement agencies, corporate world, security researchers’ industry and cyber-criminal groups. Simply put, cybersecurity is related to global politics; it does not operate outside of geopolitics, but rather in accordance with it. These issues can be interstate (between countries), intrastate (within countries), and transnational/trans governmental (above and beyond government).

Transnational dangers like hacking and cybercrime tend to have global scope, but it’s not accurate to say that they don’t take place in any particular country. Nations do counter-hacking, they detect and stop cyberattacks, they arrest and prosecute cybercriminals. The geopolitics of cybersecurity overlaps with the geopolitics of a military sort in many ways: it pits nation against nation, even as national governments cooperate across borders.

Moreover, social media helps political parties and organizations present their platforms and ideals to ideologies that align with certain groups. According to a story published by The New York Times in 2019, WhatsApp became a reliable means of secure communication for both the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul. In addition to being used on battlefields, it was used as part of a process involving leaders of the Afghan conflict. Because it allows for voices and videos to be sent, it can be used by people who are illiterate.

Another episode of cyber espionage, in which Chinese hackers stole terabytes of secret documents from government networks around the world, shows us how important it is to take into account the geopolitical factors surrounding cybersecurity.[1] Data also indicates that Russia, Iran and North Korea are developing cyberweapons.

In addition, a large fraction of cyber-attacks are performed under the influence of governments and organized crime groups. Leadership of Russia directs cyber teams to conduct various types of active measures, including targeted disinformation and hacking operations, which have been reported by FireEye. [2]

We are witnessing the rise of nation-states and people with large resources to protect, competing to steal secrets, intellectual property, and business critical information belonging to other nation-states. We find ourselves in a new cold war; only now the battles, instead of being fought in secret, play out on Facebook and Twitter for all the world to see.

[1] Two Chinese Hackers Working with the Ministry of State Security Charged with Global Computer Intrusion Campaign Targeting Intellectual Property and Confidential Business Information, Including COVID-19 Research


[2] FireEye research, analysis exposes long-standing operations by APT28 targeting government, military, and security groups of interest to Russia

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