Among the things lacking from our lives in 2020, the delayed release of the latest James Bond installment, initially due in April 2020, is still playing on many of our minds… and raises the question, at least in my mind, how do spies work from home?
You guessed it — they don’t (thankfully, or our respective national security situations would be somewhat perilous by now). However, British spies have reported a number of new challenges in the midst of the pandemic. For example, empty streets make it much harder to tail suspects, and although the lack of crowds means that terror groups are less likely to carry out attacks in the form we are used to, there is an increased risk of biological or chemical-based attacks becoming the method of choice for these groups in the future. The “good” spies of the world consequently still have their work cut out for them, as intelligence agencies continue their existing national defense and anti-terror work.
Meanwhile a new gold prize in espionage and cyber-hacking has emerged: vaccine research. The bad guys, often cyber-attackers, are either out to copy vaccine technology or, from a more sinister viewpoint, seeking to manipulate research data such that the integrity of the original research is compromised. These threats are predominantly coming out of countries such as Russia, Iran and North Korea, which are known for harboring cyber-criminals who, when needed, can work for the benefit of the state. While it’s no secret that the U.S. and China aren’t currently the best of friends, the concern over cyber-threats directed from China is also mounting, with over half of the current FBI counterintelligence cases now being directed towards those related to China.
At the same time, while technology has been somewhat of a silver lining during the pandemic and cyberspace has stepped up to the challenge of a digital world, it has also been a waking nightmare for those in cybersecurity, earning 2020 the title in the industry of “the year of the cyber pandemic.” Essentially, if it’s not a case of hostile international relations exacerbating cyber risks, it’s the opportunists jumping on the coronavirus bandwagon, with more than a quarter of all cyber threats handled by the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) being hostile initiatives to exploit the pandemic, according to its latest report.
Early-warning, including biological defense, is also a well-established role of intelligence agencies, so the claims that “nobody saw COVID-19 coming” does beg some questions around what global intelligence may or may not have known prior to the outbreak. There are claims that the intelligence components of the federal government’s Biological Defense Program presented actionable forewarning of an impending pandemic for many years prior to 2020, also highlighting the lack of capacity of the U.S. to respond to such a disaster. At the same time, while we are hoping for politicians to listen to what intelligence is trying to tell them, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for director of national intelligence (DNI), Avril Haines, has prioritized restoring the DNI’s role as a nonpartisan provider of intelligence — one that cannot be used against waring internal factions at the whim of the president.
In our current pandemicky situation, these “I told you so’s” between spies and presidents don’t help us much. Rather than simply blaming the politicians for discounting any warnings given by national intelligence operatives, or wishing intelligence communities had spoken up sooner, what we probably need is a significant improvement, globally, between intelligence professionals and key government decision-makers. If we can get that right when it comes to the threat of a global pandemic, maybe we can get it right in the face of other global threats that require multi-stakeholder responses. The name’s change… climate change.
Hayley Mole, Senior Associate & possibly a spy
New guidance as part of the British government’s covert intelligence bill has been a topic of cross-party debate in the U.K. this week, as it could allow 22 state agencies, including the intelligence service, the military and the police, to use children as undercover agents. While part of me wishes this had been enacted when I was 12 years old, sitting in a British boarding school and ready for duty, the reality of the risks to these children — often spying on people close to them and being asked to remain in dangerous living situations to do so — leaves a lot open to moral debate.
You could be breaking espionage laws on social media without realizing it — and could be charged with spying if you connect with someone on LinkedIn who turns out to be a foreign spy. Australia’s domestic spy agency, ASIO, has some suggestions for how to avoid this.
How do cyber-threats affect us day-to-day? Cybersecurity within built environments is about protecting buildings, public infrastructure and critical services, and it’s about protecting people within the spaces they occupy. As we think about our world transitioning to a smart-cities ecosystem which is built on a web of connected devices, this issue of cybersecurity is being viewed as a critical element of ESG, not just IT, which should be prioritized on businesses sustainability and resilience radar. The two industries of cybersecurity and sustainability also have a lot in common. Companies that adopt sustainable practices are generally more successful than those who don’t, adding to their bottom-line. The same can be said for implementing best-practice cybersecurity. The two fields share similar challenges as evolving movements, such as those of interoperability and scale. And finally, “sustainable” objectives around governance and good operating practices intersect with the need for compliance and transparency, creating demand for cyber products and services. This report, “Sustainable Cybersecurity to secure the modern economy,” shares more ideas on these synergies.
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