Guest post by Esther Brito, Member of the IAPSS Student Research Committee on Conflict, Security and Crime

In recent years, cyber space has become a matter of global security concern. Large scale attacks, such as the one Europe faced earlier this year, have evidenced the existence of a new layer to transnational interaction and modern conflict: cyber warfare.

Cyber attacks

Cyber conflict represents a rapidly changing strategic problem for nation states; and lacks an adequate policy framework to manage its implications. Cases such as Estonia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, or the most recent US presidential elections, have demonstrated that cyber attacks can compromise critical services, damage economies, undermine the basic pillars of democratic states, and reach the consideration of formal state conflict.

Cyber space crosses multiple national, administrative and jurisdictional boundaries, and brings a wide array of non-state actors together, from commercial entities, individuals, cybercriminals, to terrorist groups; creating a terrain that blends all possible scopes of action. Nevertheless, states remain the most powerful and active elements within cyberspace, and have effectively developed a new arena for international conflict. This becomes clear through the use of cyber criminals by nation states to further their own interests.

To understand the singularity of cyber space and its role in interstate conflict, one must evaluate its structure. This is due to the fact that the complexity inevitably embedded in the scope of cyber attacks emanates from the characteristics of the space itself. Cyber conflict occurs and develops within technologies that were mainly designed for commercial transactions; created to favor independency, anonymity, and worldwide interconnectivity. For this space to be the context within which cyber conflict develops, reflects the sheer difficulty of establishing solutions or simply standardized responses to this issue.

By definition, cyberspace enables anonymous attacks, which leads to a failure in certain attribution. Essentially, it opens the possibility for actions that carry just enough uncertainty to be un-addressable by conventional means of response. Uncertainty in attribution paralyzes effective state retaliation, and poses a new kind of paradigm in state conflict, as well as international security. This uncertainty is a source of strong political implications, both for so-called “attackers” and “defenders”; as it creates constraints. Many traditional concepts of conflict, such as deterrence and proportional response, must be readjusted or replaced entirely to deal with cyber warfare.

The structural uncertainty in the attribution of attacks, the scope of possible collateral damage, and the potential effect on state infrastructure and critical services, evidence the need for tailored principles and rules to manage and navigate cyber conflict has a new type of warfare altogether. Cyber conflict opens a wide array of possibilities that we are not currently prepared to address, and the development of these responses will strongly condition future relations among states.

Current state practices will determine to which extent cyber attacks will be contemplated as acts of war, and with which severity they should trigger diplomatic or even military response. NATO declarations have even suggested that cyber attacks can trigger its collective security response clause. Thus, within the reality of an interconnected world, these limits may soon become one of the most delicate issues in conflict management.

Cyber warfare blurs the limitations and perceptions of what accounts for conflict itself, and may favor quick escalation. Hybrid conflicts, such as Ukraine; in which physical action and cyber warfare have colluded and combined, represent a new kind of threat altogether.

This reality is effectively already under way; conditioning relations between world powers, in a manner often not exposed to the general public. It is fundamental to address the reality of this issue in international dialogue platforms and discuss cyber actions openly as a global threat to peace and security, as well as establish dynamic response protocols that can curb escalation and regulate state reaction. Cyber conflict is a no longer simply a rising phenomenon, but a new battlefield; one that in coming years will redefine the way in which states behave, cooperate, respond, and ultimately, wage war.

Esther Brito

Esther Brito is finishing a double degree in International Relations and Business Administration at ICADE Business School. She is currently a researcher with the International Women’s Think Tank, covering issues on economics and gender, and has conducted studies on genocide and war crimes in Stanford. Her current work centers on security issues deriving from sexual trafficking in South East Asia.