Image: Markus Spiske (Unsplash)
Since the creation of cyberspace there has been an increase in global-scale interactions and dependency due to the relatively low cost and simplicity of interacting in cyberspace, this has benefitted societies, boosted economies, improved military capabilities and online learning etc. Although cyberspace has advantages and provides opportunities, it also hosts a variety of vulnerabilities that can leave non-state actors, states and organisations at a risk of being exploited by those meaning to cause them harm, through practice of cyberpower. Cyberpower has influenced, shaped and affected strategies in the modern world and has enabled a new way to exercise power. This article will try to define what cyberspace and cyberpower is and what makes it a unique domain when compared to other strategic domains (eg. air, land, sea and space). It will also discuss what makes cyberattacks so dangerous, why cybersecurity is so challenging and how these issues impact international affairs and whether it could lead a potential cyberwar.
Cyberspace is a globally connected domain where information can be created, stored, manipulated, shared and exploited with the use of ICT (information and communications technologies) and EMS (electromagnetic spectrum) by way of interdependent and interconnected networks. Cyberpower is then the process of transforming information into strategic effect and using cyberspace to accomplish the end goals of the strategy. Cyberpower is used to exercise efficient and sustainable influences in society, crises, war, peace and international affairs. What makes cyberspace a unique domain is that at entry level it does not require as many resources and expertise as it is fairly simple to access and use. This allows for multiple actors to participate in cyberspace and exercise cyberpower. Cyberspace is near instantaneous as net-speed is almost as fast as the speed of light which means that news can easily and quickly go viral, for example the viral video showing the physical brawl over presidential age limits involving Ugandan MP’s (Member of Parliament) which erupted in the Ugandan Parliament in 2017. Cyberspace can also be replicated and multiple domains can exist simultaneously as nothing in cyberspace is final unlike land power, for example if the enemy destroys the opponents M1A1 tanks, it will take a while until a replacement tank is ready for deployment.
What makes cyberspace dangerous is how it is an offensive playground enjoyed by cyber-attackers as defence in cyberspace can be outmatched due to how rapidly cyberattacks evolve and how hackers continue to improve their skills to beat the security defence mechanisms. Cyberpower is also dangerous due to its pervasive nature which allows for cyber-attackers and cyber-users to access information and use it to manipulate and coerce targets. It can also affect and influence multiple domains simultaneously which allows for some actors to do it anonymously and stealthily which is one of its main attractions to many cyberspace users who wish to launch cyberattacks on organisations, governments, companies and people. Cyberpower has been and is still used for surveillance, espionage, exploitation and coercion in international conflict (eg. hacker groups threatening to expose governments). Cyberattacks are dangerous because they vary in types (hacking, malware, zero-day exploit, phishing etc.), purpose (coercion, exploitation), execution (fry servers or alter operation of machines e.g. Stuxnet) and devastation (lose of important/incriminating data or cause machine malfunction). They are also dangerous because they threaten security whether it’s the individual’s personal information (identity and banking details) or company’s/government’s/military’s classified information (defence strategies, company/government involvement in illicit trading) that would leave them in a vulnerable position. These cyberattacks pose a problem to security because, recently it has become more difficult to trace where cyberattacks come from as cyber-attackers continuely improve their prowess and mask their locations by designing the attacks to come from a different location than their true origin, which makes it diffuclt to attribute the attack to a certain individual/group and thus punishment cannot be dealt to perpetrators. These attacks can in the worst-case-scenario lead to a potential cyberwar.
Cyberwar is a non-violent war that takes place in cyberspace with the use of cyberpower as a strategic instrument that enables global reach and the ability to interfere and create unrest in the social, economic and political spheres. Therefore, cyberspace, cyberpower and cyberwar seemingly undermines boundaries and state sovereignty. For example, Russia undermined the United States’(US) sovereignty by interfering in their 2016 presidential elections with the use of “trolls” and the US together with Israel creating the malware Stuxnet to disrupt a nuclear enrichment plant in Iran. Non-state (forex traders, activists, economists etc.) and state actors can also cause cyberwars by inciting unrest on social platforms. Posting opposing political opinions, threatening to expose or exposing political agendas and injustices in certain countries to the public, which will have an effect on the country’s social, political and economic (country’s currency will become unstable) spheres. Even though cyberwar is a possibility, it is unlikely to occur due to the globalised world (too many events happening cause cyberattacks to eventually become background noise) and the vulnerability that comes with cyberspace leaves states mutually vulnerable therefore deterrence (by threat of implementing punishment policies) is the best option to avoid miscalculated cyberattacks and unnecessary devastation.
In conclusion, cyberspace as an offence-orientated domain that has allowed cyberpower to achieve end goals that could either coerce targets into desired outcomes or cause devastation. Cyberpower impacts international affairs in the sense that actors participating in cyberspace practise espionage, economically exploit (manipulate currencies by stirring unrest in a country’s political, social and economic affairs) other nations thereby seemingly undermining state sovereignty as seen with Russia’s involvement in the 2016 US elections. Vulnerability in cyberspace could possibly cause a cyberwar, therefore states and other stakeholders need to develop adequate solutions to manage and control cyberspace and ultimately cyberpower.
By Khensani Shibambo
Khensani is a final year student at University of Pretoria studying a Bachelor of Political Science (International Studies) and is a recipient of the Deutsches Sprachdiplom der Kultusministerkonferenz – A2. She also assisted at the 2020 Dominican Republic embassy’s National Day event.