Cyberwarfare in its present form may be a new phenomenon, but the concept is as old as warfare itself. In the olden days also, rivals made efforts to physically disrupt the communication systems of their adversary. Likewise, well-thought-out strategies were adopted to access information systems and create mechanisms of misinformation in enemy ranks; utilising all available means.
Rapid developments in applications of communication tools are making human beings dependent on technology. The efficacy of these technological tools was tested during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even the most advanced states with state-of-the-art medical facilities remained paralysed for months and had to resort to working digitally from their homes–from executives to clerical staff. Education institutions remained closed for nearly two years at some places and conducted online classes and Zoom webinars for an extended period till pharmaceutical industries came up with the vaccines considered reliable to resume normal lives. In some places, like Italy, Brazil and India, the mortality rate shot up to alarming levels during different phases of the pandemic and a total shutdown had to be observed for weeks. Likewise, the manufacturing of small and large industrial goods remained under tremendous stress, thereby, affecting global supply chains, causing demand and supply gaps that negatively impacted inflation, and led to a price hike of essential food items. While newly-developed technological tools greatly helped human beings in their routine lives, they concurrently put them at risk due to online privacy issues, especially for financial transactions.
Although, no large-scale cyber-attacks were reported during the pandemic nor more recently in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, reports of cyber-attacks on financial institutions syphoning off huge sums has become a routine. Numerous systems related to economy, defence, business, and decision-making processes at all levels, remain vulnerable. Even “Hacktivism,” which is ‘the use of computer-based techniques such as hacking as a form of civil disobedience to promote a political agenda or social change,” has increased manifold.
In the contemporary environment, competition between inter-state relations often unfolds in physical, information, digital, cultural and cognitive arenas. However, direct military confrontations are not very common between equal military powers. Alternatively, the tactics used by non-state actors play a significant role in their political and strategic goals, and the efficiency of these tactics has often surpassed those of traditional military means. The characteristics of the irregular forms of warfare have manifested as a combination of violent acts during these confrontations, “such as terrorist activities, cyber-attacks, economic and diplomatic sanctions, and several other components.”
Moreover, the concept of cyber threats has blurred the internal and external dimensions of state security and allowed less powerful state and non-state actors to amplify their attempts at influence. The changing nature of traditional concepts of armed conflict and war has also been identified as one of the factors that have encouraged the appearance of hybrid threats or made irregular warfare more attractive, because these may not trigger military action.
Today, cyber warfare, due to its immense power of disruption in the communication systems, is considered a more suitable tool of offensive action against one’s rival. This is extremely dangerous in the sense that such an action can paralyse the target system through disruption for the defined timeframe. These systems may include highly sensitive defence establishments including command and control systems, missile-firing sites, air defence systems, and more seriously, decision-making mechanisms at the strategic level.
The race for supremacy in space which began with the launch of Sputnik-I by the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1957 and was responded to by the United States with the launch of its first manned space flight in 1958, was perhaps to achieve better connectivity, integration, and networking in the decades to come. However, the knowledge acquired through developments in the domain of information and space technologies is now negatively employed to disrupt the same very communication and integration.
The employment of cyber warfare, as part of a strategy, to disrupt enemy lines of communication and cause harm to its potential capabilities has made state institutions highly vulnerable. Likewise, personal security which is an essential element of human security also remains susceptible to disruptions in one’s communication, location, and financial transactions, to mention a few. Therefore, it is incumbent upon international and national organisations to device legal procedures, thereby ensuring that cyber warfare does not impinge upon an individual’s rights, and s/he is not deprived of his/her financial assets.
Dr Zia Ul Haque Shamsi is the author of ‘Nuclear Deterrence and Conflict Management Between India and Pakistan’ (2020) and ‘South Asia Needs Hybrid Peace’ (2021). He is presently working as Director at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. The article was first published in Daily Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image Source:Columbus, L 2020, “Cyber Warfare – Truth, Tactics, And Strategies Is A Good Read”, Forbes, May 28, https://www.forbes.com/sites/louiscolumbus/2020/03/28/cyber-warfare–truth-tactics-and-strategies-is-a-good-read/?sh=57ead7511d3f