Cyber Arms Race

We are in the middle of the biggest arms race since the Cold War. Massive amounts of money are globally put into building cyber capabilities for defence, offense and intelligence. This development is part of a large on-going trajectory: strategisation of cyberspace and its traction into national security sphere. Curiously, it is not the amount of weapons that serves as the defining factor in the race. It is the skills that people have and the level of technology they are able to develop.

A cyberweapon needs to be up to date on the target system, capable of exploiting a vulnerability which the defenders are not aware of, and able to create the desired impact. This makes cyber-weapons products that cannot be stock piled and shelved for a long period of time or used when needed. They need to be built, modified and developed constantly. Thus, skill becomes the decisive factor in cyber arms race. And currently it is a scarce “commodity”.

Build up in cyberspace

I was last week lecturing in Geneva to multinational audience and we discussed a lot about the current cyber situation. There was a clear conclusion: Everyone is looking for talented individuals in order to succeed in Cyberspace.

Since it is not the amount of weapons or their lasting technological features that make the difference in cyberspace but the skill of people, how does one get prepared? Firstly, money floods into research and development of cyber-weapons. Effort put into R&D is to produce the cutting edge that maximises one’s security in cyberspace. Secondly, education systems are being restructured so that they provide everyone with the basic cyber skills and enable excellence of the most gifted and committed. University scholarships are offered to those with good IT-skills to develop them further.

Thirdly, recruitment needs to be successful. People are recruited from a global pool of workforce and states around the world compete for the limited amount of experts. In addition, the private sector draws from the very same pool. The number of people matters because there simply is so much to do: cyberspace is huge and grows continuously. Hence, and fourthly, contracts have to be appealing and provide both employees and partners with benefits they perceive lucrative. People are motivated by different factors ranging from freedom of action, interesting tasks and difficult problems to solve to high enough salary. In cyber arms race patriotism plays a role, too. Besides, national cyber security can only be maintained in cooperation with the private sector. There’s need for mutual respect and open communication channels.

Restraining the cyber arms race

At the end of March, the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that the Pentagon is revamping its cyber force. CYCOM will grow into a unit of 6,000 cyber-fighters by 2016 which under the current conditions is a tall order. A few days later, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Charles Gilgen said his agency’s cyber division plans to hire 1,000 agents and 1,000 analysts in the coming year. And it is not just the United States that plans to enforce her cyber capabilities.

The logic driving any arms race is the fear that others will get there first (even if there is no clear idea of what “there” may entail) and with enhanced capabilities. This would increase the threat against us as the high level of vulnerability is already recognised. This destabilising logic has increased calls for arms restrictions and disarmament in cyberspace.

Restraining the on-going arms race through negotiating restrictions on quantities of cyber-weapons is hardly sensible for the aforementioned reasons. A more likely development would be a treaty limiting the capabilities that can cause certain kinds of effects. This could begin with bilateral negotiations and practical cooperation between the strongest actors and to spill-over. Restraining skill, again, would mean limitations to such basic rights as freedom of movement and right to education or the basic human characteristic of being curious. What is currently missing is the political will to even address the question of cyber arms limitations. Yet negotiating some kinds of rules of the game in the long run is highly advisable and desirable.


Jarno Limnell

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