The lack of legal clarity and the highly securitised debate around cyber issues may have destabilising effects, including increased surveillance on citizens and a ‘cyber arms race’ between states, a new report warns today.
Cyberspace: An Assessment of Current Threats, Real Consequences and Potential Solutions, commissioned by the Remote Control project, finds that cyber security is becoming increasingly important to states’ national security strategies. However, the hyperbolic language used to describe the potential consequences of cyber attacks, compounded by a lack of reliable, concrete information on the real risks posed by cyber threats, has contributed to the securitisation of the debate around cyber security issues.
This process can lead to possible dangers being overestimated, and vulnerabilities cast as national security threats of immediate concern. The report highlights that state reactions to these perceived risks may have negative implications, including:
- Increased surveillance on citizens: To ensure greater safety from cyber attacks increased government control over online activities will likely occur, resulting in an increased degree of surveillance on everyday citizens
- Emergence of a ‘cyber arms race’: The idea that other countries routinely engage in cyber espionage and the attribution problems related to cyber attacks means that states will have a stronger incentive to take the initiative which will likely foster a ‘Cool War’ dynamic of continuous attrition and escalation between states
The report by VERTIC also observes that a number of state related cyber attacks – including Stuxnet, ‘Nashi’ and the ‘cool’ war between the US and China – pose serious accountability concerns due to the technical complexities of cyber attack attribution, as well as the ambiguous relationship between state and non-state actors. The lack of clearly defined legal standards and international legal cooperation also means that often, the attackers will not face consequences.
The report recommends a number of ways to help foster a safer cyber security environment, including:
- Ensuring accurate information is available to help avoid panic brought on by sensational reporting
- Cooperation at the expert level could help spread best practices and lay the groundwork for nascent norms
- Increased cooperation and information sharing at technical and political level could help solve the problem of attribution
Alberto Muti, co-author of the report says,
Given the importance cyber warfare has assumed in the strategic outlook of many nations it is essential to be able to accurately analyse cyber attacks to better understand their effectiveness and impact. However, current debates on cyber security has often ignored complexities in the field, aiming instead for hyperbolic statements regarding the potential dangers of cyber attacks. This will have a negative impact in the long run fostering the ‘Cool War’ dynamic whereby states engage in continuous attrition and escalation, leading to an erosion of trust between states and greater government control hampering civilian’s day to day lives”.
Caroline Donnellan, manager of the Remote Control project says,
The rising importance of cyber security issues is part of a global trend of moving towards war by ‘remote control’. The appeal of cyber warfare that increases the ability to strike a broad range of targets with limited consequences for the attacker, like other types of remote warfare, comes at a cost. Difficulties of attribution and the blurring between state and non-state actors means there are serious accountability and oversight concerns regarding this warfare.”
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The Remote Control project is a project of the Network for Social Change hosted by the Oxford Research Group. Remote Control examines changes in military engagement, in particular the use of drones, special forces, private military companies and cyber warfare. The project acts as a facilitator for the exchange of information and commissions and publicises work undertaken in the area, aiming to examine the long-term effects of remote warfare.
The Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC) is an independent, not-for-profit charitable organisation. Established in 1986, VERTIC supports the development, implementation and verification of international agreements as well as initiatives in related areas.
Alberto Muti works as a Research Assistant for the Verification and Monitoring programme. He follows a range of international agreements, both existing and proposed, and analyses technical aspects of their implementation and verification. His other research interests include illicit procurement of dual-use items, new technologies, and international security studies, with a focus on Asia. Alberto holds an MA in Non-proliferation and International Security from King’s College London and a BA in International Relations from Bologna University.
Katherine Tajer is a Research Assistant at VERTIC and has contributed to the organisation’s internal reports on cyber security and arms control. Katherine holds a BA in International Relations from Tufts University. Her previous experience also includes internships with the Institute for Science and International Security and Amnesty International UK.
Larry MacFaul is a Senior Researcher with the Verification and Monitoring Programme where he works on arms control and security, and prior to this, trade and development issues. He has published and spoken widely on these areas. Larry carries out analysis, project development and management, and government capacity-building exercises. His work has covered illicit trafficking in radioactive materials, nuclear safeguards, nuclear disarmament verification, cyber security, conventional arms trade controls, the UN climate change treaty, and illegal trade in natural resources. He works with governments, international organisations, businesses, research institutes and other stakeholders. Larry is editor-in-chief of VERTIC’s publication series and a member of the editorial board for the international journal Climate Law. Larry holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and a BA Hons from Oxford University.