The world is watching closely. Billions of people log in every morning, afternoon or evening to keep up with the news. There is hacking, data smuggling, information abuse, electronic militias, cyber-spy networks, online intelligence agents and much more.
Could the world have entered a state of permanent cyberwar? A few days ago, several countries accused Russia of directing a series of cyber-attacks against them.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that Russian military intelligence had been directing cyber-attacks aimed at undermining Western democracies by sowing confusing in everything from sport to transport and the US presidential elections in 2016. He described the GRU’s (Russian Military Intelligence) actions as “reckless and indiscriminate”.
On the same day, US, Dutch and French officials echoed the same concerns. They spoke of the GRU trying to hack organisations looking into allegations of Russia’s illegal acts on the web.
The latter is becoming more and more unsafe, with control, regulations and management all being pushed aside. The survival of the fittest is currently the order of the day on cyberspace.
Managing cyberspace amidst a series of unique dangers, unprecedented risks, unforeseen attacks and a full-on cyberwarfare seems like a tough if not impossible job.
However, last week in New Delhi, a group of experts from around the world convened to touch upon just this at the sixth edition of CyFy, India’s flagship conference on technology, security and society organised by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
ORF President Samir Saran said at the conference that “unless we bring together diverse perspectives and guarantee the plurality of opinion, it is likely that cyberspace will fall prey to 20th-century paradigms where might is right and the power of the amplifier decides the discourse.”
The ORF conference itself was dominated by the risks, dangers and threats of the virtual world, rather than the opportunities, possibilities and solutions that the world wide web once offered.
Once presented as a tool to democratise the world, empower the poor, help the needy and oppressed, and turn Mother Earth into one happy family where empathy and sympathy rule, the web is now revealing an ugly face.
This says that data has divided the world, that 21st-century warfare has been cyber-enabled, that states are attacking others via thousands of online cadets, that online radicalisation continues to be a major threat, that armed conflict is using virtual weapons in the age of artificial intelligence, and that ownership of personal data has become an issue in a world dominated by war.
Yet, the war on the web is different from the wars we know. There is no instant bloodshed or screaming gun-shots, but damage, fear and insecurity are nevertheless still there.
There is increasing talk about the need to define minimum levels of human control over autonomous weapons systems. Nobody knows what weapons are currently in use by militaries depending on artificial intelligence, and there is no information on the predictability of such weapons.
Weapons in the digital age come in all shapes and sizes. A recent article in the US journal Foreign Policy entitled “In Cyberwar, there are no Rules” summarised such scares.
“Increased fear, uncertainty, and doubt surrounding cybersecurity have led to a world where we cannot tell what has and hasn’t happened. The nature of cyberwarfare is that it is asymmetric. Single combatants can find and exploit small holes in the massive defences of countries and country-sized companies… [But] it will likely be mundane strikes against industrial control systems, transportation networks, and healthcare providers, because their infrastructure is out of date, poorly maintained, ill-understood, and often unpatchable,” the magazine said.
“Worse will be the invisible manipulation of public opinion and election outcomes using digital tools such as targeted advertising and deep fakes — recordings and videos that can realistically be made via artificial intelligence to sound like any world leader.”
The shockwaves created by Russia’s operations in the last US presidential elections have been reverberating across the world for the past two years. This claimed influence has led to a series of unanswered questions, many of which were tacked in New Delhi with no clear-cut answers.
One answer came a few days ago from the British Ministry of Defence, which announced a CyberFirst Programme in which over 2,000 military cadets will be trained every year to acquire the skills and expertise to become cybersecurity experts.
Over £1 million will be invested in the programme each year, giving cadets the opportunity to learn how to protect systems connected to the Internet from cyber-attacks. The number of cadets will reach some 60,000 by 2024, and “they will be fully immersed in cybersecurity issues,” the official announcement said.
Recurring cyber-attacks by some countries are increasingly leading others to adopt cyber-defences, as a full-scale cyberwar might be just a click away.
The current state of cyberwarfare does not only pose threats to the stability and security of countries around the world, but it is also leading to increasingly tight regulations.
The quest to tackle “fake news”, for example, has proven challenging both in terms of technological solutions as well as in potential conflicts with freedom of speech.
Global digital rights are starting to negatively affect real human rights. The challenge of balancing democratic governance with technological freedom has become acute.
However, what is even more acute is the fear for the sovereignty, boundaries and governance of states. Older ideas of a borderless world of market democracies where government was less important and authority could be shared among stakeholders are collapsing.
Many countries have already started “regulating” the Internet, even as with “regulations” come over-regulation and the control and strong arms of states.
The growing number of states experiencing or foreseeing the dangers of a cyberspace that has become larger than real life sheds light on the importance of bringing together diverse perspectives.
The current situation and the nature of cyberspace and its growth do not require solutions, but rather brainstorming and the bringing of as many countries and people as possible to the table.
In New Delhi last week, participants at the ORF conference asserted the importance of bringing together diverse perspectives and the plurality of opinions. The new technologies were increasingly testing our ability to manage them and their political and social consequences, they said.
“Artificial intelligence has stepped out of the silver screen to become a potent force in all aspects of our life. The Internet of Things has become the Internet of People, as devices, data and platforms blend seamlessly among users and consumers to create new opportunities and risks,” Saran said.
The world is worried about online radicalisation, as well as the future of jobs in an age of increasing automation and whether our education systems and societies are ready for a near-automated future.
However, there are also other, existential worries. What is the future of humanity? Should we proceed with business as usual in developing more sophisticated and dazzling technologies? Or should we rethink the future of humanity in a digital world that has apparently skipped over digital ethics?
Maybe it is humanity that is at risk, rather than certain states, specific rights or the future of jobs.
*The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Technology in the age of cyberwarfare