Changes to national security in digital era

By LANG PING / 05-26-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Brochures about knowledge of national security were handed out in schools.   PHOTO: Zhai Huiyong/CNS 

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is a new form of war in the digital era. Cyberattacks and information warfare have moved from lurking backstage, to the foreground, and cyberspace has taken a dangerous turn towards weaponization. In a conflict, confrontation in cyberspace complements traditional military operations by gathering intelligence, disrupting social order, and guiding public opinions. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine shows us how national security environments change in the digital era and national security’s digital features. As a new type of security, the digital era’s influence on national security is multi-dimensional. It not only concerns political security, but also affects economic security, social security, and scientific and technological security.

Compared with the past, new threats posed by national security in the digital age are as follows. 
New threats arising
First, cyberattacks continue and the means of attack is constantly updated, which becomes increasingly difficult to guard against. Cyberspace is an artificial technological space, which is always accompanied by security risks during its development. Malicious cyberattacks due to high-risk vulnerabilities, hacking, viruses, trojans and other attacks are frequent, and a growing number of online activities during the pandemic are fueling criminal activities such as cyberattacks. Cyberattacks are gradually evolving from traditional individual-attack and single-point targets to organized crime and national-level attacks. Electric power, energy, finance, industry, and other key infrastructures have become an important battlefield in the defense against cyberattacks. 
Second, the cyberspace arms race is intensifying, information and data are being weaponized, and confrontations between states are becoming increasingly apparent. In the face of rising dilemmas regarding cyberspace security, several international powers introduced such offensive strategies as the “lead-defense,” “layered deterrence,” and “frontier hunting” and publicly admitted that they have launched cyberattacks at other countries, this cyberspace combat was regarded as a legitimate means of interstate political and military confrontation. Moreover, unlike other cyberattacks that use code as a weapon, these attacks can utilize or manipulate specific cyberspace content for the benefit of one country and at the expense of other countries, to achieve its geopolitical targets. As new technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence continue to develop and are applied, state-led computational political propaganda is increasingly used in political warfare. It is usually driven by intelligent algorithms and spreads false information by means of political robots. 
Better governance capacity needed
Without the development of binding international rules, the risk of political and military conflict between states in cyberspace will increase faster than ever before.
In the digital era, the sources of threats to national security are more complicated and diversified, with intertwined internal and external security. From the perspective of development trends, national security risks in the digital era pose challenges to the improvement of national governance capacity.
Definitely, absolute security cannot be achieved. From a technical point of view, security loopholes in cyberspace can never be completely eradicated, so it is impossible to achieve absolute security in cyberspace. However, insecurity caused by uncertainty will encourage countries to continue to increase investment in security. Since there is a cost for maintaining safety, we must seek the equilibrium point between safety costs and benefits. Safety’s marginal utility will decrease beyond this equilibrium point. In the decision-making process, security costs and benefits cannot be easily quantified, calculated, and perceived. Therefore, to maintain cyberspace security, ensuring secure and controllable goals is often more important, and the efficiency between costs and benefits tends to be ignored. 
Lang Ping is a research fellow from the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Edited by BAI LE