The darkening web: the war for cyberspace; The virtual weapon and international order

The darkening web: the war for cyberspace; The virtual weapon and international order Although different in their scope, both Alexander Klimburg's and Lucas Kello's books shed a particularly stimulating light on what is commonly described as the geopolitics of cyberspace. As The darkening web illustrates, analysing the geopolitical implications of cyberspace is profoundly challenging—the pace of the internet rarely matches the length of a necessarily strenuous writing process. Both the National Security Agency (NSA) debacle and many of the disclosures related to the Kremlin's alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election occurred after Klimburg completed his manuscript. Despite these omissions, the book is a successful attempt at decompartmentalizing international politics and cyber studies. The author's central argument is that cyberspace has become an arena for large-scale international security competition, fought in an increasingly uncivilized ecosystem of digital aggression and overt information warfare. One area of fierce contention has been the ‘battle’ for internet governance. The issue has long been ignored and restricted to small silos of experts. However, the documents disclosed by Edward Snowden triggered a massive backlash to the US historical ‘stewardship’ of the internet. Furthermore, in recent years and particularly since the Arab Spring, governments around the world have become more alert to the disruptive potential of access to digital communications. Thus the line between technical and political governance is being increasingly blurred, predominantly—but not exclusively—by authoritarian governments who fear the ‘subversive power’ of networked technologies from both a political and an economic perspective. Unsurprisingly, Russia features prominently throughout the book. Klimburg describes Russia's successive cyber attacks on the infrastructure of Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as documenting its dissemination of fake news—and the hacking of America's Democratic National Committee's emails in 2016. The Russian leadership sees the internet as a profoundly disruptive technology that threatens not only government-to-government relations, but also, and more importantly, the stability and integrity of nations. (This also highlights how the dissemination of networked technologies has increased the impact of domestic concerns on the formulation of Russia's foreign policy.) Another stimulating insight into Moscow's internet policy is that Russia—as a country seeking to challenge the international consensus on a number of issues—is eager to shift the western narrative on the current global governance regime of the internet, where the US still retains considerable leverage. Klimburg notes how, due to this, Vladimir Putin used Edward Snowden's disclosure of NSA operations to charge the US with ‘cyber hypocrisy’. The perceived ‘American hegemony’ leads to two conclusions in the eyes of the Kremlin. First, the internet is a dangerous place and instrument in the hands of a hostile America—which emphasizes Moscow's largely neo-Hobbesian view of international politics. Second, Moscow must have a US-centric cyber and information foreign policy—which is driven by both a deep anti-Americanism persisting in the top Russian foreign policy and security elites, and a will to position Russia as an exclusive interlocutor to Washington in key international negotiations on, most notably, cyber norms. On the ‘information’ level, Moscow seeks to stir up widespread distrust in the western political system and values—understood as rule of law-based democracy. On the ‘cyber’ level, Russia is eager to challenge NATO member states' reactions and capacities. This subtle combination has been poorly understood in the West—at least until the holistic nature of Russia's strategy was dissected during the 2016–2017 electoral cycle in western democracies. Lucas Kello's The virtual weapon extends some of Klimburg's ideas—perhaps in a more structured and theoretical manner. The book's main purpose is to explore the likely effect of ‘cyber’ on the balance of power among nations, as well as prospects for conflict and competition. For the past few years, geopolitical friction has been contributing to a surge in the scale and sophistication of cyberattacks, particularly well-resourced efforts with state backing. One of Kello's most fascinating insights relates to the attribution problem—‘the signature of power in cyberspace’ (p. 129). It is still very hard to identify the origins of a cyberattack—the perpetrators might hide behind a group of hackers or computers in another country. The quasi-impossibility of knowing precisely who attacked you makes the right to self-defence obsolete. This was demonstrated by President Barack Obama's long hesitation about attributing the cyberattacks and intrusions perpetrated during the presidential campaign to the Russian government. For reasons that have more to do with geopolitics, the US did not want to be the first nation to declare a ‘cyberwar’—an American cyber attack targeting Russian networks, for instance, would open both a technical and a legal Pandora's box. Though it fits into the framework of International Relations (IR) theory, The virtual weapon avoids a trap IR academics commonly fall into when analysing cyber issues. Policy-makers and academics have a hard time keeping up with how cybersecurity is changing ‘on the ground’. Alarmist debates about whether ‘cyberwar’ would take place did make senior policy-makers and the public care about cybersecurity, but they have also made them focus on threats from other states and interstate conflict. Due to this, Kello asserts that they have systematically neglected the role that hackers ‘from outside the states system’ (p. 187) play as proxies and how they facilitate state actors to develop and quickly deploy offensive cyber capabilities. It is now clear that actors other than states can cause significant harm through hacking. In fact, less sophisticated actors can potentially pose a greater risk than sophisticated ones—they often lack the skills to develop more precise codes that would limit the effect of the malware. The WannaCry ransomware that hit 250,000 computer systems worldwide in 2017, and forced hospitals in the United Kingdom to turn patients away, demonstrates what can happen if a less sophisticated actor uses malware with an intent to cause harm. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png International Affairs Oxford University Press

The darkening web: the war for cyberspace; The virtual weapon and international order

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Publisher
The Royal Institute of International Affairs
Copyright
© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0020-5850
eISSN
1468-2346
D.O.I.
10.1093/ia/iiy045
Publisher site
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Abstract

Although different in their scope, both Alexander Klimburg's and Lucas Kello's books shed a particularly stimulating light on what is commonly described as the geopolitics of cyberspace. As The darkening web illustrates, analysing the geopolitical implications of cyberspace is profoundly challenging—the pace of the internet rarely matches the length of a necessarily strenuous writing process. Both the National Security Agency (NSA) debacle and many of the disclosures related to the Kremlin's alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election occurred after Klimburg completed his manuscript. Despite these omissions, the book is a successful attempt at decompartmentalizing international politics and cyber studies. The author's central argument is that cyberspace has become an arena for large-scale international security competition, fought in an increasingly uncivilized ecosystem of digital aggression and overt information warfare. One area of fierce contention has been the ‘battle’ for internet governance. The issue has long been ignored and restricted to small silos of experts. However, the documents disclosed by Edward Snowden triggered a massive backlash to the US historical ‘stewardship’ of the internet. Furthermore, in recent years and particularly since the Arab Spring, governments around the world have become more alert to the disruptive potential of access to digital communications. Thus the line between technical and political governance is being increasingly blurred, predominantly—but not exclusively—by authoritarian governments who fear the ‘subversive power’ of networked technologies from both a political and an economic perspective. Unsurprisingly, Russia features prominently throughout the book. Klimburg describes Russia's successive cyber attacks on the infrastructure of Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as documenting its dissemination of fake news—and the hacking of America's Democratic National Committee's emails in 2016. The Russian leadership sees the internet as a profoundly disruptive technology that threatens not only government-to-government relations, but also, and more importantly, the stability and integrity of nations. (This also highlights how the dissemination of networked technologies has increased the impact of domestic concerns on the formulation of Russia's foreign policy.) Another stimulating insight into Moscow's internet policy is that Russia—as a country seeking to challenge the international consensus on a number of issues—is eager to shift the western narrative on the current global governance regime of the internet, where the US still retains considerable leverage. Klimburg notes how, due to this, Vladimir Putin used Edward Snowden's disclosure of NSA operations to charge the US with ‘cyber hypocrisy’. The perceived ‘American hegemony’ leads to two conclusions in the eyes of the Kremlin. First, the internet is a dangerous place and instrument in the hands of a hostile America—which emphasizes Moscow's largely neo-Hobbesian view of international politics. Second, Moscow must have a US-centric cyber and information foreign policy—which is driven by both a deep anti-Americanism persisting in the top Russian foreign policy and security elites, and a will to position Russia as an exclusive interlocutor to Washington in key international negotiations on, most notably, cyber norms. On the ‘information’ level, Moscow seeks to stir up widespread distrust in the western political system and values—understood as rule of law-based democracy. On the ‘cyber’ level, Russia is eager to challenge NATO member states' reactions and capacities. This subtle combination has been poorly understood in the West—at least until the holistic nature of Russia's strategy was dissected during the 2016–2017 electoral cycle in western democracies. Lucas Kello's The virtual weapon extends some of Klimburg's ideas—perhaps in a more structured and theoretical manner. The book's main purpose is to explore the likely effect of ‘cyber’ on the balance of power among nations, as well as prospects for conflict and competition. For the past few years, geopolitical friction has been contributing to a surge in the scale and sophistication of cyberattacks, particularly well-resourced efforts with state backing. One of Kello's most fascinating insights relates to the attribution problem—‘the signature of power in cyberspace’ (p. 129). It is still very hard to identify the origins of a cyberattack—the perpetrators might hide behind a group of hackers or computers in another country. The quasi-impossibility of knowing precisely who attacked you makes the right to self-defence obsolete. This was demonstrated by President Barack Obama's long hesitation about attributing the cyberattacks and intrusions perpetrated during the presidential campaign to the Russian government. For reasons that have more to do with geopolitics, the US did not want to be the first nation to declare a ‘cyberwar’—an American cyber attack targeting Russian networks, for instance, would open both a technical and a legal Pandora's box. Though it fits into the framework of International Relations (IR) theory, The virtual weapon avoids a trap IR academics commonly fall into when analysing cyber issues. Policy-makers and academics have a hard time keeping up with how cybersecurity is changing ‘on the ground’. Alarmist debates about whether ‘cyberwar’ would take place did make senior policy-makers and the public care about cybersecurity, but they have also made them focus on threats from other states and interstate conflict. Due to this, Kello asserts that they have systematically neglected the role that hackers ‘from outside the states system’ (p. 187) play as proxies and how they facilitate state actors to develop and quickly deploy offensive cyber capabilities. It is now clear that actors other than states can cause significant harm through hacking. In fact, less sophisticated actors can potentially pose a greater risk than sophisticated ones—they often lack the skills to develop more precise codes that would limit the effect of the malware. The WannaCry ransomware that hit 250,000 computer systems worldwide in 2017, and forced hospitals in the United Kingdom to turn patients away, demonstrates what can happen if a less sophisticated actor uses malware with an intent to cause harm. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Royal Institute of International Affairs. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

International AffairsOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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