When we talk about war, we usually picture exploding bombs, tanks, military aircraft, and thousands of deaths. But when we talk about cyber-war, we do not perceive all the consequences to which it may lead. As a matter of fact, cyber-war can be far more dangerous. In the age of advanced technology and computerisation, it is a dreadful weapon, simply because computerisation has permeated through every sphere of life.

At present, because the use of new information and communication technology is one of the main topics of major power discussions, accusations, and mutual complaints, it poses a threat to international security and strategic stability.

Recently, information about cyber-attacks, hackers, and computer break-ins has been all over the media. Cyber-attacks are becoming more frequent and more dangerous, and are occurring on a larger and larger scale. The new weapon of cyber-technology has become all too attractive as a tool for politicians, intelligence services, and the mass media.

According to publically accessible information on cyber-attacks, the US, the UK, Russia, China, India, Iran, and North Korea possess the most advanced cyber weapons.

During 2016, hackers attacked the servers of the World Anti-Doping Agency, the database of the Bundestag’s administration, and the computer systems of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party; incidents where the world saw a trace of Russian influence. Finally, the most notorious cyber-crime was the hacking of the US Democratic Party’s e-mail servers. The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence accused Russia of organising attacks in order to interfere with the US election process. The accusations were called “unproven” by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Cyberspace appears to be not only an integrative platform for the collaboration of major powers, but also turns out to be an arena for their confrontation. A cyber arms race is at full speed, and the unstable state of international relations may lead to severe consequences in the field of cyber security. Governments seek to gain access to large amounts of information and intelligence services often use cyberspace for undercover operations – even in respect to their allies – in order to achieve geopolitical goals.

An acute awareness of the intensity surrounding the topic of cyber security allows us to compare it with the problems of nuclear disarmament. The fact that NATO officially declared cyberspace a domain of warfare (along with land, sea, air, and space), illustrates the effect of breakthroughs in technology over the last 25 years.

Is it possible to make cyberspace more secure? Maybe an equivalent to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons could be a way out, but due to the specific nature of cyberspace it is quite hard to imagine when such legally binding norms could be implemented and how they could be controlled. Nevertheless, with regard to international legal regulations for cyber threats, development in this area has already been advanced by NATO and the UN.

From the end of the1990s, the world started to talk about the need for protection from cyber-attacks. In the early 2000s, NATO took the first steps in this area and developed a program for cyber defence, which included the creation of NATO’s capacity to respond to computer incidents.

When Warsaw hosted the NATO summit in 2016, considerable attention was paid to issues related to the alliance’s activity in cyberspace. Through the Cyber Defence Pledge, the alliance committed to enhancing cyber defence as a matter of priority. NATO also stated that it would continue to deepen cooperation with the EU, which would include the on-going implementation of the Technical Arrangement that contributes to better prevention and response to cyber-attacks. The decision to increase cooperation with the EU and other international organisations in the field of cyberdefence is also reflected in the joint declaration signed by the presidents of the European Council and European Commission, and the NATO Secretary General.

At present, the NATO cyberspace policy is mainly focused on defence and deterrence. Recently, the Tallinn Manual on the International Law Applicable to Cyber Warfare was published under the aegis of the alliance, which describes the general principles of international law that are used in the context of cyberspace. Moreover, NATO announced a €3 billion investment plan for cyber defence technology in the coming years.

The UN is also fostering bilateral and multilateral negotiations on cyber security standards and looking at how well the standards are adhered to. Since the early 2000s a number of resolutions were adopted by the UN General Assembly that furthered the creation of a global culture of cyber security. One of most recent resolutions was supported by more than 80 states from every region of the world.

The way forward for many countries, including Russia, consists of the need to recognise the limits of, and in the long-term to ban the use of, cyber weapons as an instrument for undermining international stability.

In the given circumstances, it seems that a most important question is the following one: what are the main challenges and threats that we could face in 2017?  Analysts from Forrester Research predict that Donald Trump may face a cyber-crisis in his first 100 days in office, and it is still uncertain how the new president will react to the growing number of cyber-attacks. Moreover, according to forecasts from the Trend Micro company, in the upcoming year the scope and depth of attacks will increase, as hackers will use a broader variety of tactics to  maximise impact. The analysts mention the following predictions: an increase in online extortion; cyber propaganda becoming a norm; and fraud via corporate e-mail scams.

Only time will tell whether cyber security developers will be able to promptly ward off cyber-attacks, and to what point an ‘unleashed’ cyber-war could lead us in future.

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Elena Sulimova
Elena Sulimova graduated from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, specialising in European Regional Studies. After several years of work with the World Public Forum 'Dialogue of Civilizations' Elena is currently interested in European integration, sustainable development, and the digitalisation of modern society.