Cyberspace is also geographical! Reflecting the world we live in, it is also a platform for cyberterrorism. In this article, we will see in more detail its geographical dimension and how this “virtual territory” is also the theater of terrorist activities, and the role of governance in this.
On November 8, the fifth World Internet Conference was held in Wuzhen, Zhejiang Province, China. Echoing the previous fourth edition of this conference, a debate on the value of cooperation in dealing with cybercrime and cyberterrorism was launched. Cybercrime acts concerned 100 million Europeans in 2017, at a total cost of 23 billion euros, about 10 times the average GDP in the European Union. Criminal acts on the Internet aren’t negligible and this virtual space is undeniably vulnerable. This vulnerability is known to terrorists, who use the Internet to spread their ideas or commit actions.
Cyberterrorism is a controversial notion, but it can be defined as activities on networks and computer systems that aim to disrupt their smooth functioning. The dysfunctions caused by cyberterrorism are designed to cause trouble and create a sense of panic. The principle of terror is enacted, and this sometimes involves very sensitive data, which accentuates the effect of fear.
I – Cyberspace, on the border of reality
Cyberspace has, as its name suggests, a geographical dimension through the term “space”. This space may seem borderless and without physical dimensions. However, the space is not only virtual but also includes physical elements: the infrastructures, the network, the routers and other relay or central points. The Internet network is controlled and managed by humans; it connects machines to each other but also humans to each other, so it isn’t independent – and it is in these supervisions and interconnections that certain specificities of the “geographical territory” can be found.
Cyberspace may seem like a world apart, without borders, yet in practice it can express the same conflicts as in terrestrial space. In fact, cyberspace is the issue, the theater and the instrument of contemporary geopolitical conflicts. Thus it is in cyberspace that we find played out the reports of powers, the influence of the territories, and, following on from this, the representations and the strategies of the various actors for its control. While it is difficult to separate the conflicts of cyberspace from the classic rivalries that are played out over land-space, this new world offers new tools for the territories and allows a “redistribution of the cards”.
The defining feature of cyberspace is that it’s a new world and we are unprepared for it. And although it looks like the real world, we have no points of reference to analyze this territory.
II – Cyberspace: strategic territory for terrorism
Having made the connection between cyberspace and the real world, we understand that certain risks inherent to cultural and geopolitical rivalries can also be expressed in the virtual world (while having physical consequences because of the aforementioned link between the virtual and the physical). Within this digital territory, there are state actors trying to control and dominate this space; this is particularly the case in the United States, as was revealed in the Snowden case. There is a form of cyberspace war where everyone tries to dominate the market.
On the other hand, it is possible even for groups with limited means to conquer this territory, which is an open-air market. In this respect, cyberspace is not completely known and under control: there is also the dark web. The Internet connects people from different cultures around the world, and these people or groups of people may have different opinions. This is how hacktivists use the web to spread or impose their ideas more or less forcibly by taking control of elements related to the Internet such as servers or websites. The diversity and the ease of these attacks can be seen from the occasions when the attacker is only an isolated adolescent; through this we see the vulnerability of territories through their digital dimensions.
Given the vulnerability of cyberspace, ill-meaning groups such as terrorists can seize money, data or websites to carry out their activities. Generally, it is found that cyberterrorists use the web as a tool for communication and dissemination of their ideas. Videos of attacks are shared and communicated through their own online newspapers.
III – Cyberspace: the state of play of its governance and security
Faced with these interactions, it is clear that there is a need for reflection on this “world” and for the formulation of a strategy to guard against computer risks related to terrorist acts. It is the notion of governance that must be looked into – a term intrinsically linked to geography. This governance is difficult to implement because it is made up of several stakeholders, ranging from civil society to states to multinationals.
The different approaches of the various actors towards the Internet thus prevent the creation of governance. Since the stakes are high and there is no agreement, the web tends to reinforce tensions between actors. It is also a generator of stakes, especially economic, so it is not modeled on terrestrial issues and conventional conflicts between states.
Security must, however, be the business of several states; it can hardly be achieved alone because the Internet is an interconnected world. Borders have become more difficult to define. Cyberterrorism continues to be underestimated; governments are focusing more on cyber-attacks. But cyberterrorism represents a real danger given the sensitive data that is transmitted on the Internet. It is also a threat to operation, because many companies and states rely on computerized systems.
Cyberterrorism is inevitable in a virtual space that looks like the real world. The territory of the web is a critical space that deserves better attention and the surveillance of numerous activities that take place, by the very logic of surveillance. However, when cyberterrorism affects the states themselves, it is difficult to control – here the whole paradox can be seen.