Cyberwarfare and national security

Mohamed Abdel-Wahed
Sunday 21 Oct 2018

Cyberwarfare has become one of the greatest threats to national security in the world today, presenting new challenges for the world’s intelligence agencies

The term “national security” is often bandied about in different ways and at all levels of society in countries the world over. When we want to focus people’s attention on a subject, we call it “a matter of national security,” for example.

We might also use the phrase for totally opposite purposes. When we say, “that’s a national security issue, and it should not be discussed,” we mean we want to avoid the issue and evade responsibility for it.

People involved in national security often wonder who or what is responsible for defining it. Are they persons or are they abstract internal and external factors? Who decides what is or is not a threat to society? Is designing policy and defining national security restricted to political and security elites or can non-governmental actors also be involved in such processes?

After the fall of ancient Egypt, the successive empires that ruled the country defined the concept of national security on behalf of the Egyptian people.

This situation slowly began to change with the era of Mohamed Ali in the early 19th century when the features of the modern nation-state began to coalesce.

After the Egyptians regained control of their own country following the 1952 Revolution, political and intellectual circles buzzed with long discussions and heated debates on the concerns of national security.

While political elites formulate national security, numerous factors set the parameters for them to do so. Among the most important are geography, history and a people’s interpretations of geographical and historical givens.

Definitions of national security also vary from one country to the next and from one region to another, which is only natural since the concept of national security changes in accordance with differing threats, challenges and interests.

National security is thus a relative concept and not an absolute. Even so, we can offer a working definition of national security that might run as follows: national security is “the ability of a country to defend its security internally and externally, to develop its overall sources of strength and to enhance its ability to confront crises, challenges and threats in a manner that achieves national aims and increases the rate of development.”

However, as comprehensive as this definition might be, it could still change in future with the emergence of new threats or challenges.

The first person to formulate a specific definition of national security was the US commentator Walter Lippmann during World War II.

His definition was limited to the military dimension and held that military force was the strongest and most influential means of enforcing the security and stability of the state and protecting it from outside threats.

However, other sources of strength have emerged since Lippman’s time, and some of these are more effective than military might in conducting international relations and managing conflicts. They include economic, social, political, diplomatic and technological factors.

As a result, national security today is multidimensional and unachievable through military power alone, even if other sources of strength are not as clear cut as military force. In the light of international developments and the transformations in the nature of conflict over the past two decades, political scientists now also speak of “smart power” and “soft power.”

The US commentator Joseph Nye, assistant US secretary of defence under former US president Bill Clinton and former chair of the US National Intelligence Council, speaks in his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004), of “soft power” being the ability to get others to do what you want through persuasion and appeal rather than coercion or payment.

The essential sources of such power are cultural, since these may have the power to attract others. Political values may also be a source of soft power when applied faithfully at home and abroad.

Nye also holds that the notion that military force alone can suffice as a means of resolving conflicts is out of date, especially given our current globalised world and the power of communications and information technologies. 

Threats To National Security

In any discussion of national security, we must always also search for the sources of threats, whether emanating from foreign states or from non-state actors such as terrorist organisations. 

The worst potential threats to national security are foreign interventions in national affairs, and the most serious of these by far are military interventions.

These can be either direct through the use of military force (unilaterally or multilaterally) or indirect by supplying arms and logistical, material, moral or intelligence support to a particular faction. The latter is sometimes called a war by proxy.

However, there are also other types of non-military foreign intervention, including sanctions and military or economic assistance with strings attached, such as aid in exchange for carrying out certain political policies, obtaining military or intelligence services, or safeguarding ruling regimes.

Although sanctions are less violent that war, they have been widely criticised as an inhumane means of managing international disputes since ordinary people can end up suffering more than their regimes.

There is another type of non-military intervention in which intelligence agencies play a major role in shaping policies such as promoting grassroots uprisings, engineering regime change, supporting coups and shaping public opinion in other countries.

These and other types of intervention come under the heading of intelligence operations abroad, and for governments wanting to call into play a comprehensive array of political, diplomatic, economic, social and technological resources they have become both more prevalent and more effective.

Such instruments are constantly being developed to serve the interventionist party’s purposes. At the same time, they are less costly than military interventions, and they come in for less criticism from the international community because they are generally less visible.

In the world today, conflicts are also shifting towards cyberwarfare, which relies on modern information technology instead of conventional weapons.

Governments around the world are racing to acquire and develop technologies to control the nature and flow of information, not just in their own particular regions but also worldwide.

Armed with such instruments, they are able to send out targeted messages to create and shape public opinion in favour of particular policies or outlooks.

This “firehose of falsehood,” as such propaganda has been called, relies on generating an intense flow of information that is both convincing and often seriously misleading.

As a result, the world’s intelligence agencies have become increasingly alert to how dangerous cyberwarfare can be. The latter has opened up a new theatre for harvesting and processing information on individuals, groups and organisations in order to learn their secrets and patterns of behaviour.

Using artificial intelligence and data-crunching software, enormous amounts of information can be pooled and analysed in order, for example, to measure public opinion in different countries.

When put to work in cyberwarfare, such findings could be used in order to trigger political disturbances or to channel public opinion in particular directions.

The classical model of the media was based on centralised news and information sources that were generally state-owned or operated. With the introduction of satellite television in the 1990s, the field suddenly opened up and news and information sources proliferated.

Then came the age of the Internet and the information technology revolution that opened up the field still further.

However, none of the previous phases of development pose as great a threat to national security as do the current social-networking sites that have brought about a revolution that has changed many basic concepts of the media industry.

These sites have become powerful political lobbying tools and an important means of promoting political change. Because of the possibilities they offer for cyberwarfare, they have also had palpable repercussions on the social dimensions of national security.

With the recent rise in political populism in many countries worldwide, they also enable the widespread circulation of false information through such activities as disseminating fake news and propaganda.

Terrorist groups and the countries that sponsor them have used such instruments and particularly hacking technologies in order to penetrate other societies and their social-networking sites in order to spread their ideologies, disseminate their ideas, and promote themselves and their operations.

Terrorist organisations have found social-networking technologies to be convenient ways of communicating with their operatives wherever they may be, as well as ideal recruiting and screening instruments.

They can use them to probe potential recruits online and determine whether possible candidates possess the outlooks and proclivities that could make them vulnerable to extremist indoctrination.

These include being filled with bitterness or despair, harbouring resentment against society and the government, or feeling generally wronged or persecuted.

Terrorist groups have also used social-networking sites to train operatives on planning, how to carry out terrorist attacks, how to use communications technologies, how to escape or withdraw, and how to manufacture explosives from commonly available materials.

The terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) were adept at using social-networking sites for the above-mentioned purposes.

However, such sites are also fertile ground for foreign intelligence agencies, especially because of the high rates of their daily online use among smart phone users.

Opportunities for planting and disseminating fake information and rumours have never been as large as they are today, when they have been made widely available through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Users of these apps can write, plant and relay news, information and ideas, including fake news and rumours, with very few restrictions.

In short, cyberwarfare, with its detrimental repercussions, has become one of the greatest threats to national security in the world today.

In very little time and at very little cost, it can undermine and destroy a society, spread anarchy and social turmoil, undermine trust in governing institutions, erode the social underpinnings of the state, disseminate political apathy and alienation, spread extremism and destroy communal values.

This type of warfare could even achieve in a relatively short time what military forces and intelligence agencies have not been able to achieve in decades.

* The writer is an expert in national security affairs.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Cyberwarfare and national security 

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