National security: time to get online and upstream

The Nat. Sec. Strategy places welcome emphasis on the need for enhanced cyber-security & greater focus on overseas conflict prevention, writes ippr's Andy Hull.

Andy Hull is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr)

The National Security Strategy published yesterday placed welcome emphasis on the need for enhanced cyber-security and a greater focus on overseas conflict prevention. In both areas there is still room for improvement. Cyber-crime, cyber-terrorism and cyber-warfare are very real 21st-century threats, from China’s unofficial army of state-sponsored hackers to terrorists fundraising in Second Life.

More work needs to be done, however, on the international legal framework that governs hostile activity in cyber-space. The Laws of Armed Conflict need further interpretation to establish international consensus on how to accurately assess and attribute a cyber-attack; the necessity, proportionality and timing of any response; and the civilian consequences of action taken.

If someone starts corrupting all of the UK’s social security databases, for example, how do we legitimately figure out what’s happening, who’s done it, what damage has been done (or is yet to come), what level of retaliation is reasonable, and whether that retaliation might include the use of physical force?

These questions are hard enough in the conventional kinetic theatre. They get much harder in the virtual world of cyber-space. As Michael Chertoff, former US Homeland Security chief has also argued, a harmonised international framework for grappling with them is needed.

The Government has also rightly recognised that anticipation is the key to an effective national security strategy. We need to get upstream. That means more support to struggling states like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, better civilian-military integration in peacebuilding operations, and a much stronger emphasis on conflict prevention to save money and save lives.

Ippr has recently published reports on the international community’s successes and failures in this regard in Afghanistan, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo and later this week will publish a report pulling together from all these case studies the lessons we must learn.

Where power goes, governance must follow. As an international community we need to extend effective governance into under-governed spaces, whether they be expanding global commons like cyber-space or fragile and failing nation states.

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