The rise of cyber alliances and emerging cyber threats will compel governments to rethink their behaviour on the global stage.
As the Ukraine war intensified in April, a series of cyber attacks hit German wind power companies. The attacks disrupted the systems of almost 2,000 wind turbines. The group behind the attack was alleged to be aligned with Russia.
Of course, a cyber attack on Germany was not unexpected. Because of the Ukraine war, and the growing chasm between Russia and the West, a drawn-out cyber campaign between both sides was inevitable.
But, what was unexpected was the target: Germany’s clean energy sector. It was a sign that a new era of cyber warfare was underway. Now, “targets” that had flown under the radar (like the supply chain of Toyota), or targets that nobody expected to be hit due to their non-threatening nature (like Germany’s sustainable infrastructure), were suddenly fair game.
This points to a new status quo emerging in the cyber world.
When it comes to cyber attacks, the “gloves are coming off.” There’s no telling how severe the next cyber attacks could be. Will a nation’s nuclear weapons systems be disrupted (as a recent FBI investigation into Chinese technology near US military bases eluded to)? Or, will an entire society, from ambulances to financial institutions, lose access to telecommunications (as happened in Portugal)?
Such fears are behind calls to form “cyber alliances.” These would be new groups focused on addressing cyber threats posed by various world powers. These alliances would be exclusive, only involving a handful of nations. Such a model is likely to split the world further, taking geopolitics in a new direction.
Take the United Kingdom. As political candidates sparred to become the next Conservative leader and British prime minister, the idea of an “international alliance between nations” surfaced – specifically to take on Chinese cyber threats. As a new era of “vertical globalization” begins, the strategy of the British government is increasingly to “decouple” from China.
Jump to Estonia, where the former president has called for a “digital alliance” to address cyber threats in the world. The alliance should be made up of democracies connected by values, not just geography. The proposal is a sign that Eastern European nations are beginning to think twice about their relationship with China. And, the first place they are taking action is on the cyber front.
The rise of cyber alliances, and the emerging cyber threats facing the world, will push governments to rethink their behaviour on the world stage.
For example, the West might introduce an AI-based cybersecurity shield. This shield would protect Western nations from cyber attacks that target critical infrastructure, interfere in elections, or even “inject” deepfakes into societies. This would be similar to the “Digital Iron Dome” that Israel is building. Except, doing this means that Western nations are building “cyber walls” between themselves and the rest of the world.
It also means the AI-cybersecurity shield might begin to influence, if not define, the foreign policy of nations. Tomorrow, if the AI-shield launches an offensive cyber attack against another nation, it will redefine the foreign policy of nations within the cyber shield. These governments will find themselves in reactive mode, struggling to keep up with the decisions AI is making in the cyber world – and the consequences that follow.
Or, countries like China and Russia “might upgrade their existing cyber alliance, formed in 2015, to include new areas – like the commercial sphere. These governments could begin to view many foreign businesses as “cyber threats.” This is not new. But, so far, to address this, these governments have focused on controlling the export of data.
Except now, governments might go further. They might force businesses from certain geographies to “adopt” systems – like Kirin (a Chinese OS) or Sailfish Mobile OS Rus (a Russian mobile operating system) – if they want to access certain markets and win support from the government. Of course, this kind of strategy is not limited to just China or Russia. In India, the government is pushing for foreign technology firms, especially smartphone makers, to adopt India’s locally-developed navigation system over GPS or BeiDou.
All of this means that cyber alliances, and new technological vectors (like navigation systems), will give governments more control over businesses. Of course, the “invisible hand” of government has always existed, like with the West requesting data from Big Tech. But, now, in the case of what China and Russia could do, these governments could have direct “eyes and ears” into business operations.
The shape of alliances to come
When Pelosi visited Taiwan recently, a series of cyber attacks hit the island. This was nothing out of the ordinary, as Taiwan gets hit with more than 5 million cyber attacks everyday.
But, these new attacks were different. They targeted everything from 7-11 stores to train stations, and turned them into “broadcast terminals” for China. These places started to show messages criticising Pelosi.
Like the attack in Germany, it was a sign that the face of cyber attacks is changing. It’s imperative that governments contend with the new reality facing their economies and societies. Of course, this won’t be easy, for many reasons.
To start with, there may be dozens of cyber alliances that exist, each originating from a different power. These alliances will compete to bring nations into their camp — and adopt their cyber security frameworks. This will further divide the world, as different cyber security rules, standards, and protocols exist in various spheres of influence.
At the same time, while the current cyber alliances are being started by countries, the next alliances might be started by companies. Already, technology companies wield immense power over geopolitics. There’s nothing stopping them from forming their own cyber alliances that complement, compete, or collide with what governments are doing.
However, beyond all this, the biggest question facing countries is whether they are rethinking cybersecurity in the new era of geopolitics that’s begun. Because whatever a government wants to do will be upended by the new geopolitical realities emerging everywhere. Most shocking, in some cases, there may be no choice or wiggle room.
As cyber alliances rise, and geopolitics gets reconfigured, the new fault lines that are forming might force countries to take action they never imagined — and deal with consequences they never prepared for.