Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Two cyber security driven scenarios for the (infra-) structure of future cyberspace

The current (infra-) structure of cyberspace has evolved based on opportunities associated with positive incentives, scientific, economic, military or otherwise. The infrastructure is open and standardized and this opens the options for economic prosperity. However, during this optimistic build-up not much attention has been paid to the simultaneously created opportunities for actors with negative intentions. Negative, from the perspective of the government, society and individuals, in that it negatively influences the well-being of individuals or society as a whole. Currently the negative actions start to draw the attention of individuals, businesses and governments as the impact is starting to be felt.

Most security events can be categorized as cybercrime - a well-documented event classified as cyberwar or cyberterrorism is the attack on Estonia in 2007. Additional to cybercrime, the possibilities of cyber warfare, espionage and terrorism are starting to emerge. This means that an additional dimension to cyber security over the existing cybercrime threat is added: the national security dimension.

Where the first threat can usually be dealt with using risk management through balancing costs and benefits between the different actors: society, government, businesses, users and criminals. Improving incentives, regulation, legislation and technology usually brings the effects of cybercrime to acceptable levels at acceptable costs. The second threat of cyber warfare, terrorism and espionage also encompasses the risk to damage or bring down or permanently destroy (inter-) national infrastructure and a direct threat to human life. This threat is growing at a rapid pace while ever more parts of our infrastructure, communication, electricity, water, banking etc., is getting hooked up on the cyberspace communication infrastructure. Even in our house more appliances are getting connect to the so called 'Internet of things'. This gives attackers, even geographically for away attackers, the option using security flaws, to influence, damage or shut down all these appliances with one push of a button.

This certainly is an issue of national security. However, it is unlikely that the cybercrime fighting tools incentives, regulation, legislation and technology are going to bring this much more catastrophic kind of risk to acceptable levels: there just is not an acceptable level, basically it is a kind of a catastrophe that just should not be able to occur or at least with a small as possible probability. However, the only way to prevent these types of events is not to expose the appliances to worldwide cyberspace communication infrastructure or not embed it in the current cyberspace structure. From the economic point of view this is not an option; There is basically only one other thing left: making sure that your communication network is only open to trusted users.

This all points to two possible future scenarios for cyberspace:

The first scenario which I denote the cybercrime dominated scenario. In this scenario cyberspace communication and structure will stay global open and connected and develop along the line of the current opportunity based incentives relying on risk management to balance the negative aspects.

The second scenario, which I will denote the national security dominated scenario, is more involved. In that scenario national security is leading and, as we already noted risk management and the associated tools, are not going to prevent events from happening: it is war! The only way to go forward is to create networks with trusted users, not being able to influence the cyberspace from outside the trusted space. To create such a space would basically involve creating separate communication blocks with different technology, protocols, than the current ones. Multiple cyberspaces you might call them.  Very likely the different blocks will align with national, regional or political borders. It will also probably mean that the protocols will be more restricted. Anonymity will probably be lost.

Analyzing both scenarios leaves us with important questions: What is the likelihood of the scenarios occurring? What would the consequences be for users, businesses, government, society as whole? How would the scenarios play out? Under what conditions are the scenarios sustainable?

Playing around with the scenarios is that the cybercrime dominated scenario is only sustainable in a ''one world''; one with respect to legislation, regulation, incentives, while the national security dominated scenario is the most likely when nations or larger groups in the world are not willing to adhere to the ''one world'' situation. This latter scenario would change at least from the Western perspective, the world quite a bit!

Will it happen? Future will tell, but it might be wise to start thinking about the above scenarios to have a chance to maneuver the world to an optimal situation.

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