By: István Hagyó and Bianca Ferrazza
Witnessing government agencies, corporations and the military's recent shift of administration of activities to the internet, one cannot ignore the pressing concern of cybersecurity to world security. It is pertinent to discuss cybersecurity, as the contemporary world is increasingly immersed in the use of new IT technologies; humans seem to be living in cyberspace rather than in the physical one. Cybersecurity’s relevance to national security is obvious: in the era of digitalization, we are observing a lot of new threats coming from the internet and countries must act before having their weak spot detected.
What is a cyber attack?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a cyber attack is an act aimed at the damage or the destruction of a computer network or system. More precisely, a cyber attack consists of an attempt to perform any action that might hurt a database’s security. These actions may include disabling computers, stealing data or leakage of any sensible information.
What happens when a country or company is the victim of this attack?
The cyber domain also refers to the term “cyberspace”. According to the definition of the U.S. Department of Defense, cyberspace is “A global domain within the information environment consisting of the interdependent network of information technology infrastructures, including the internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems and embedded processors and controllers”.
Cybersecurity’s role in the contemporary world emerges as a consequence of the internet revolution of the past decades. It is considered a practice aimed at the protection of systems (alongside that of programs and networks) from the threats of digital attacks.
Cybersecurity aims to foil attacks at gaining access, leak or destroy sensitive information and to interfere with the normal administration of companies, government agencies and other subjects. The implementation of cybersecurity has improved in recent years, due to the growing business of high tech companies, but so have hackers. In general, one can consider a successful cybersecurity approach one that presents several layers of protection against hackers.
The Evolution of US Cyberpower
In analysing the approach of the Biden administration in regards to cybersecurity threats, it would be interesting to look back in time and to understand what the past US administrations have done.
In 2003, the Bush Administration commissioned a document, National Strategy for Security Cyberspace, which pinned down three tactical approaches aiming to prevent cyber attacks on the country’s most important infrastructures, reduce its fragility and, in case the attack actually happens, implement efficient strategies to minimize damage. The National Strategy issued by George W. Bush also posed itself as a target to invigorate companies’ care to their cyberspace, by routinely empowering their security systems. The Bush administration also presented a huge contribution by issuing the National Infrastructure Protection Plan in 2006, which identified 17 infrastructure sectors and advanced the idea that cybersecurity’s importance derives from the fact that it can be declined in any sector and therefore does not represent a separate topic.
The Obama Administration took a radically different approach, organizing cybersecurity with a top-down strategy by assigning the command of cybersecurity policies to the White House rather than to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). During his mandate, new legislations were passed, alongside the issuance of new policies. Chinese hackers were involved in cyber theft regarding intellectual property and trade strategies, occupying US intelligence in many inquiries. In 2015, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed an agreement aimed at the cessation of commercial hacking, which resulted in a drop in the number of instances of Chinese hacking into the American commercial cyberspace. Additionally, the state department worked with international institutions and with other countries in an attempt to apply international law to the new cyber threats. The Department of Home Security enhanced its “Einstein” cyber threat prevention system; the software now is used by more than 90% of federal agencies.
The Trump Administration, experts say, seems to have taken the country a step back on cybersecurity management. The former President fired Christopher Krebs who was the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (C.I.S.A.) since 2018 for not having supported Trump’s claims on the 2020 election fraud, a decision that was contested by most cybersecurity experts. Trump’s legacy on cybersecurity is made up of several different measurements. During his mandate he managed to confront China on cyber issues, to recognize the importance of the cyber domain in regards to the next decades in warfare. It also implemented a “Defending Forward Strategy”. This strategy enforces operations aimed at intercepting attacks before they reach the U.S. and has several implications in regards to some sectors of the economy considered vital to the country’s normal administration. The new strategy also claims to be “preparing for war”. It seems that the cyber operations will be joined with warfighters, to try and combine the two aspects of security.
Newly-elected President Joe Biden has come up with a new executive order regarding the matter of cybersecurity, making it a priority to improve the Government’s strategy tied to the new threads proposed by the “cyber switch”. In order to better sum up the new policies regarding the cybersecurity approach, the White House has released a fact sheet focused on the highlighting of some key aims of the executive order, some of these being the improvement of software supply chain security, the establishment of a cybersecurity safety review board and the removal of barriers to threat information sharing between borders.
U.S. Administrations vs Major adversaries
The American approach toward potential Russian cyber threats became a major debate after the accusation of Russian meddling in the 2016 American General Elections. The GRU (Russian military intelligence agency) carried out several attacks on Ukraine including two power grids and the 2017 NotPetya virus causing $10 billion worth of damage. The Baltic states are the most vulnerable and affected, while direct cyber-attacks against US international companies, governments and critical services are also very common. In 2020 alone, almost 300 million ransomware attacks were launched causing a $1 billion loss. Such an occasion was the ransomware attacks on Colonial Pipeline resulting in gas outrage of the East Coast for days.
The different interpretation of the nature of cyber conflict by both states makes the situation more complicated. The Russian government and embassy strictly denied the existence of such operations. However, several attempts were initiated by the Russian part to form a common group to counter cyber-attacks. The American part each time rejected the offer, especially during the Trump Administration, due to mistrust and fear from domestic scepticism in case of an agreement by President Trump. The Biden Administration realized, both the necessity and the lack of progress in the case. A significant result and probably the only one during the recent Biden-Putin summit in Geneva, Switzerland, was to form a bilateral committee on cybersecurity issues and potential cyber-attacks. The American part highlighted 16 entities, infrastructures that are off-limits from attacks.
China is also raising concerns in Washington. The United States’ cyberspace relations with China are different as compared to Russia. China has greater economic potential, therefore, more resources to fund its cyberspace strategy. When considered from a global perspective, it reaches any industry and all the sectors involving any entity. Like in other arenas, China is pursuing to take the frontrunner role in cyberspace as well. The characteristics of Chinese cyber-attacks are heavily intelligence oriented and spying for the ultimate western technology. A great suspicion is toward Chinese advanced telecommunication equipment like the Huawei 5G. In order to avoid the escalation of such allegations, the two states in 2015 signed the U.S. - China Security Agreement. However, it focuses only on economically motivated cyber-attacks. It is widened by the escalated trade war between the two countries resulting in no breakthrough during the Trump administration and the recent Sino-American summit in March 2021.
Given the increasing importance and danger of cyberspace, only in 2020 alone, almost 30.000 companies, corporations, institutions and banks were targeted and a total of 300 million cyber-attacks were launched causing over $1 billion loss. The concept of cyberspace and its potential threats became a national security topic during the presidency of George W. Bush. The Obama Administration was the first to institutionalize it, while President Trump was the first who publicly accused China of cyberspace warfare. Now, it is President Biden’s turn to take an approach and engage major powers to internationally institutionalize cyberspace to prevent uncontrolled cyber-attacks. There is a need for barriers and deterrence for those who conduct uncontrolled cyber-attacks. Although this was initiated with Russia during the Biden-Putin summit, only time will tell the extent to which it is successfully implemented.