Cyber Probing: The Politicisation of Virtual Attack

Despite its pervasiveness in our daily lives, from social media to electrical networks to banking, the critical nature of the online remains ill-understood or appreciated. “Cyberspace,” a recent report asserts, “remains inadequately defended, policed and indeed comprehended.” This is the conclusion of Alex Michael, a researcher for the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. In Cyber Probing: The Politicisation of Virtual Attack, Alex dispels the comfortable belief – expressed in practice and conceptualization of online and new media – that the cyber world is somehow separate from the “real” world. In fact, they are simply new tools used for traditional activities. Cyber attacks, Alex points out, are used “in conjunction with many other forms of pressure, ranging from physical protest to social and diplomatic approaches, to influence the target and attempt to force its hand.” The Stuxnet worm reinforces Alex’s premise.

Alex demonstrates that network actions are increasingly used by state and non-state actors to achieve political ends, to manipulate business deals, and often “in cases where traditional warfare has been used in the past.”

Several examples of Chinese activities are examined in the section entitled “Chased by the Dragon,” as are Russian activities in “Caught in a Cyber Bear Trap”. A few examples – Baidu, Egypt/Algeria, Iraq, and Israel – further illustrate the breadth of actors and online vulnerabilities.

This unclassified report will be required reading for the graduate course on public diplomacy that I teach at USC. “Cyber Probing” demonstrates that distinguishing between “old media” and “new media” is naive and dangerous in the environment of blended offline and online activities we live and operate in. My term “now media”, focused more on information activities, addresses this reality. Alex’s paper shows the “convergence” is greater, deeper, and more pervasive than many appreciate.

This paper may be a wake-up call to some. To others, it will brings together examples into an appropriate narrative that properly contextualizes cyber activities as extensions of traditional activities. The threat is lax, or absent, attention to vulnerabilities that are akin to securing the front door while leaving the windows open. The cyber world cannot be treated as a novelty, nor can it be considered something unique and special. It is an extension of our daily lives that brings new opportunities for engagement as well as new vulnerabilities from manipulation, espionage, and even incapacitation.

Alex concludes,

Cyber attacks are already an effective tool, not just for criminals, “terrorists” or small non-state groups, but also for states themselves, looking to gain advantage in a competitive and globalised world.

Read Cyber Probing: The Politicisation of Virtual Attack on Google Docs. Email me to link you to Alex.

See also:

See also this upcoming conference on Influence and Propaganda October 13-15, 2010.