The More Things Change...Espionage in the Digital Age


Last week, Der Spiegel reported that the BND – Germany’s foreign intelligence agency – had accidentally intercepted calls of U.S. government officials while collecting intelligence on Turkey. For many, this was an example of hypocrisy in international relations, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of the most vocal critics following the Snowden Affair, which strained relations between the U.S. and Germany. But one can’t help but be struck by the media’s surprise that a country that so vocally spoke out against cyber-espionage also conducts it. The main story should not be an overreaction to the collection behavior (accidental or not) between allies, but rather the evolving nature of state behavior in light of technological change. Each historical technological revolution has altered and shaped not only every aspect of warfare, but also of peacetime behavior between states. One of the current manifestations of this adaptation to technological change is the creation of state-sponsored cyber units, potentially for cyber offense and defense alike.

First, and it almost seems ridiculous to note this, but recent events warrant it: espionage is not a new phenomenon. Espionage and intelligence gathering have likely existed since the beginning of time, and were certainly factors in many ancient civilizations including Egypt, Greece and Rome. Just like today, spying was not purely a characteristic of Western behavior - in fact, Sun Tzu devoted an entire chapter of The Art of War to spying and intelligence collection. As technology changed, the modes of espionage evolved from eavesdropping, to binoculars, to pigeons rigged with cameras, to aircraft satellites, to today’s hot term: cyber-espionage. While this over-simplifies the evolution of espionage, it’s important to note that throughout history, each technological change has similarly impacted collection procedures.

Moreover, technological innovations in both war and peace simply cannot remain indefinitely under the purview of a single actor. Eventually, other actors imitate and even leapfrog ahead after the first use of the technology. In fact, a striking feature of the Digital Age is the decreasing amount of time it takes for the replication of technological innovation. While it used to take years to copy the technological capabilities of other actors, this time lag has dramatically decreased due to the fast pace of technological change characterizing the modern era. While in the past, some states may have held onto anachronistic technologies, even governments of closed societies are increasingly tech savvy, leveraging the cyber domain to achieve domestic and international objectives.

Knowing that espionage is not a new phenomenon, and that technological copycats have occurred throughout history, the obvious question becomes: Is Germany indicative of other states that have organizations devoted solely to cyber security? Below are just a few examples. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it is illustrative of a growing trend as states adjust to the realities of the Digital Age. The role of the United States and Germany has been covered in significant detail elsewhere, as have the cyber units of major global and regional powers such as RussiaChinaIsrael and Great Britain. Like most behavior in the international system, the scale and scope of these cyber units vary enormously based on the opportunity (i.e. resources) and willingness of each individual state:

  • Australia: The Australian Cyber Security Centre, formerly known as the Cyber Security Operations Centre, is scheduled to open later this year with a large focus on domestic cyber security. The Australian Signals Directorate has been noted as having closer ties with foreign signals intelligence organizations.
  • Brazil: The Center of Cyber Defense (CDCiber) brings together the Brazilian Army, Air Force and Navy, but is predominantly led by the Army.
  • France: Some note that France lags behind Western counterparts, but it has established the Centre d’Analyse en Lutte Informatique Defensive (CALID). According to Reuters, while this year’s increased spending will go toward infrastructure, a large part of it will also be allocated toward, “building up web monitoring and personal data collection.”
  • Nigeria: In light of cyber attacks from Boko Haram, Nigeria is stepping up its cyber security capabilities. Recent proposed legislation focuses mainly of combating cyber crime, and includes intercepting various forms of electronic communication.
  • North Korea: Has had a cyber unit since 1998, the most prominent of which is Unit 121. Just this summer, it was reported that North Korea has doubled its cyber military force to 5900 cyber warriors. The General Bureau of Reconnaissance is likely home to this growing group of hackers.
  • Philippines: Despite some delays in its legal system, the Philippine military has created a cybersecurity operations center, called C4ISTAR. This move followed a series of attacks against Philippine government websites and heightened tensions in the South China Seas.
  • Rwanda: Perhaps the most unlikely case, Rwanda has had a cyber unit for quite some time. This summer the Rwandan government announced plans to strengthen the cyber unit’s capabilities.
  • South Africa: Maintains a National Cyber Security Advisory Council, and as of last year intends to create a cyber security hub based on its National Cyber Security Policy Framework.
  • South Korea: Has had a cyber command since 2010, a likely response to increased cyber attacks from North Korea and elsewhere.
  • Even IGOs are getting in on the action – NATO has strategically placed a cyber unit in Estonia, called the cyber polygon base. NATO has already carried out several cyber exercises at this site.

In short, similar to what we’ve seen in previous eras, states are altering their behavior and organizational features in light of technological disruption. This quick overview by no means makes a normative claim about whether the rise of state-sponsored cyber organizations is bad or good for society, but instead highlights a growing trend in international relations. The latest disclosure on German collection efforts is likely indicative of things to come. But how states respond to this trend will vary greatly. Like all technology, there will be those who embrace it and those who reject it. Germany’s suggestion of adopting typewriters (and not the electronic kind) to protect sensitive information and counter cyber-espionage is just one example of how reactionary measures by states may risk sending them back to the technological ice age. What a great way to protect information - because after all, everyone knows that espionage didn’t exist before the Digital Age!