Geopolitics of Cyberwar : a new issue for the 21st century

Author : Uriel N’GBATONGO.

During one of his conferences in the International forum of cybersecurity in Lille in 2015, Matthijs Veenendaal, a distinguished researcher of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence declared that « cyberspace will certainly be a key element of all the future conflicts, even if we are still ignoring which shape it will take ». The international digital space, also called « cyberspace » is crossed every day by roughly 3,7 billion users, thus being a major dimension of worldwide inter-territorial relations. Henceforth this new dimension, which is at the same time an area of sharing, divisions, and confrontations, is undoubtedly a key element to understand the current military, security and economic issues.

As there are many tools and digital weapon of « cyber-destabilization », the more cyberspace is developed the more it becomes potentially dangerous. In this respect, the cyberspace was particularly active these last years. Indeed, the supposed Russian spyware attack during the American presidential election and the DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks against international companies such as Sony and Dyn, revealed to the world how much cyberspace could be compared to 2.0 arena. 2017 only confirmed this new paradigm with the worldwide emergence of a certain category of virus, up to there unknown of the general public : ransomwares. The ransomwares, such as Wannacry, NotPetya, PetrWrap and Bad Rabbit are basically virus whose main objective is to code the data of an infected computer so as to oblige its owner to pay a virtual ransom.

In the first place, in a general aspect one of the main characteristic of this new way of waging war is the great heterogeneity of each stakeholders. Indeed, whether we consider individuals, such as Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, non governmental activists such as the Anonymous or the Shadow Brockers, or governments themselves, a great variety of actors are feeding the warlike relations within the cyberspace. In fact, this could be considered as the main corollary of an intrinsic characteristic of the « 2.0 Web » which theoretically delivers the same digital contents and tools to every Internet users who knows how to take advantage from it. As a consequence, although mastering tools of mass hacking is still out of the reach of the average techie, more and more cyber weapons have become accessible to the ones who know where to find it. Indeed, considering ransomwares, on the Dark web, which is basically the non-indexed part of the Internet, many RaaS ( Ransomware as a service ) such as Satan website discovered in January of 2017 by a cybersecurity expert. The main objective of a RaaS is to offer self service ransomware in exchange for Bitcoins. Such a easy access to hacking tools and cyber weapons could explain the everlasting worldwide cyberattacks whose range is all the more important that a territory’s networks is developed.


To some extent, cyberwar has become a true economic sector. Following the example of mercenaries used in the past on the battlefield, it is not uncommon to see governments contacting independent hackers for their own interest. Thus, we may interpret quite easily the assertion of Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, two high colonels of the Chinese army who declared in their book Unrestricted Warfare that « from now on, soldiers will no longer have the monopoly of war, […] the battlefield will be everywhere ». As a consequence, if we conjugate this with the almost permanent anonymity of cyber-attackers, it appears quite clearly that it has become more and more complex to identify clearly its opponent on the « cyber-battlefield », thus giving a unique dimension to this war of a new kind.

Besides, on the battlefield, it is no longer about setting up walls or barbed wired wires to defend oneself from infiltrations but setting up procedures within the framework of what is now called « cyber defense ». Cyber defense has become a national priority in many countries, involving the creation of military bodies specialized in the digital technology. In France, for instance, cyber defense has been established as a key strategy by the ex-secretary of defense Jean-Yves Le Drian who devoted a billion euro budget for the 2014-2019 period.
On an international scale, all the world’s major powers have trained their own cyber-army. Following the example of China and its Blue Army which compound specialists in cybersecurity and cyber-spying, or the example of the United States Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) set up in May 21st 2010, henceforth traditional military bodies have to cooperate with a new kind of militaries, « cyber soldiers ».


Another symptom of such a « cyber defense outbreak » is the setting up of many national cyber protocols and obstacles to the interconnected network. Indeed, in the United States of America for instance, since 2003, scientists have developed the Einstein system, intending to create a governmental restricted network also known as Trusted Internet connection. Thus resulting in creating a network whose access of being watched and controlled. On a larger scale, the main symptom of this war of position within the cyberspace is undoubtedly the implementation of closed networks. Just like the Chinese « great digital wall » or the « BRICS cable » project lead in 2013 by the former Brazilian president Dilma Roussef to create a network out of reach of a NSA intervention, each country tries to maintain its leadership within cyberspace.

However, although it is the custom to speak about « the fourth dimension » when speaking about cyberspace, cyberwar’s corollaries are truly physically noticeable. Indeed, given the great digital integration in developed countries it is no longer feasible to consider the structural organization of a country or an institution without attaching to it a cyber dimension. From now on, a cyberattack on a national scale turns out to be as effective, not to say more efficient, than a traditional military operation regarding destabilization. In this respect, the Ukrainian power cut caused which occurred on December 23th 2015 by a Black Energy virus ( a Trojan horse malware) and the paralysis of the English National Health Service in June 2017 following the « Wannacry » outbreak are showing how much cyberwar aims to be the continuation of the traditional war, using weapons of a new kind adapted to the digital era.

Therefore, if cyberspace remains an impalpable virtual dimension, its worldwide amplitude which is increasingly strategic for States and private actors makes it an area of fierce confrontations. Cyberspace is progressively becoming an area among which dominating is comparable to crossing the Rubicon. Nevertheless it remains to be seen whether States will still be the game masters in the future. Indeed, just like the digital selling of hacking tools stolen organized in May 2017 by the Shadow Brokers, cyber weapons exploited by governmental power could one day fall in the wrong hand and cause damages far more colossal than the last successive waves of ransomwares.



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