Cyber-attacks are a common feature of today’s political and economical climate, with rogue nation states using the power of the internet to target countries by influencing elections, stealing technology and compromising government data. This has become all too clear in light of the recent ransomware attacks targeting US businesses and governmental agencies by Iranian hackers. Despite this, it is important to note that Western nations are complicit in the hacking of their allies too. Allied nations of the West need to reformulate their strategy with the aim of creating a stronger alliance within cyberspace.
The West likes to place blame on their adversaries, like China, Iran, Russia and North Korea as the culprits in regard to hacking attacks. Of course they are responsible, but what tends to be downplayed is the hacking that takes place between Western countries. In some way, it’s a thousand times worse. In December 2021, it was revealed that Israel’s NSO Group, through the use of their Pegasus software, were hacking the phones of US State Department employees. This may be surprising to most people; isn’t Israel supposed to be America’s stronghold in the Middle East to help deter foreign forces like Russia and Iran now operating in Syria? But it’s not just America’s allies who don’t trust them, but the other way round. The NSA was accused of eavesdropping on former Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel’s phone calls back in 2013.
Now that it is established that Western allies hack one another, the question becomes why?
Countries around the world operate according to their own national interests and are looking for economic gain, intellectual capital and business information to support international negotiations. All of these elements can affect currency exchange rates and international trade contracts. This information is crucial when shedding light on the effects of economic sanctions or what your friends are doing. Maybe they’re cheating in the world of economics. Therefore it is clear that, despite alliances, both friends and enemies of the Western world have opposing intentions, due to their own national interests that don’t align with that of the targeted country.
Examples of this could be deals that countries make with their adversaries to benefit their own national interests, but would have a negative impact on their allies. Israel’s decision to hack the phones of US diplomats may be simply distrust, due to America’s cancellation and then resumption of the Iran Nuclear deal, which could negatively impact Israeli security. Russia and Germany’s Nord Stream expansion was seen as a threat to US global influence and security, which has only become all too clear with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and energy stranglehold over Europe.
Countries have been competing with one another since ancient times. Now that economics is driven by the internet and virtual goods and services, the competition has been extended into cyberspace. It’s all about digital diplomacy. So how do Western allied countries negotiate cyber space? The key is learning how to apply deterrence in the cyber-domain.
In the cold war, deterrence was executed via mutually assured destruction, where global superpowers had enough nuclear weapons, that if there was an attack on their homeland, a retaliatory strike would be inevitable, leading to catastrophic losses on all sides. A similar counter-balance is needed in cyberspace.
Western countries should form a collective cyber alliance, similar to that of NATO, within which they would share cyber security related capabilities, tools and information. This would enable appropriate legal actions against nation state sponsored cyber attacks, like from the Iranians, Chinese and Russians. This would also help in the development of international cyber security laws and personal data protection. To ensure that an alliance remains strong, all parties need to be fully trusting of one another. This can only be achieved through transparency. A collective cyber alliance would be seen as an extension of the five eyes alliance, which focuses on the physical world. Through this cyber security coalition, enemy hackers who carry out malicious attacks from outside the targeted country, such as the recent attack on US entities by Iranian hackers, won’t only be charged for their crimes, but would also most likely be detained and prosecuted for them.
Cybersecurity threats have increased by over 358% in recent years, outpacing societies’ ability to effectively prevent or respond to them. This is why an alliance is required and why International cybersecurity laws need to be drawn up and implemented. The defense of the Western Alliance from hostile foreign forces is important, however, establishing common ground amongst those allies, in the cyber realm, is even more critical. An alliance divided among itself, will not last.