In the Age of Artificial Intelligence: Cyber Security and Great Power Politics

18 SEP 2019

By Dr Ashok Sharma

This article first appeared on Australian Institute of International Affairs’ “Australian Outlook”

Artificial Intelligence and cyber warfare are emerging as key components in great power rivalry. The international community needs to act fast to develop legal and political frameworks that can mitigate their deleterious effects.

Asymmetric warfare used by both nation states and non-state actors to harm their adversaries and to achieve their objectives has been a major focus for defence planners since 9-11. Terrorism continues to be a global security challenge, but a new asymmetric security challenges in the form of cyber attacks has emerged over the past decades. These attacks are carried out by individuals, organisations and by nation states alike. Cyber security has emerged as an international security challenge amidst the advancement and shifting reliance on Artificial Intelligence (AI), and is very much visible in great power politics.

The development of AI is presenting particular security challenges. The US and Japan have accused China of cyber attacks on businesses in the past. But such attacks are now emerging in the realm of national security and defence.  Indeed, the world is entering the age where possession and advancement in AI, not nuclear weapons as in the past, will determine the great power status of nations. Great powers are looking for advancement in AI and doctrines of cyber deterrence connected to nuclear technology to give them an edge over their rivals.  For a great power, the advancement, possession and employment of AI in defence and military operations will become significant for maintaining global influence.

Dominating Cyber Space: Great Power Politics

Indeed, cyber security has come to be the very first line of defence of any country. Despite being the most advanced country in terms of AI research and development, the United States has been the main victim of cyber attacks from both state and non-state actors. Cyber security was a major issue of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. In 2017, President-elect Donald Trump declared that he would build “a comprehensive plan to protect America’s vital infrastructure against cyber attacks.” But the United States has also created insecurities in the cyber world. The revelations of Wikileaks and Edward Snowdon created apprehensions among America’s adversaries about US cyber power. Many countries have since been focusing on the need for indigenous capabilities in the cyber realm.

Russia and China are striving to be dominant players in cyberspace. Indeed, Russia is encouraging a new generation to work in the field of AI. This was reflected in President Vladimir Putin’s speech  to students at the start of the Russian school year in 2017:

Artificial intelligence is the future, not only for Russia, but for all humankind. It comes with colossal opportunities, but also threats that are difficult to predict. Whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world.

China, meanwhile, has a full-fledged strategy to be a dominant player in cyberspace. The 2015 Ministry of National Defense paper, “China’s Military Strategy,” described cyberspace as a new pillar of economic and social development, and a new domain of national security. The paper declared “China is confronted with grave security threats to its cyber infrastructure as international strategic competition in cyberspace has been turning increasingly fiercer, quite a few countries are developing their cyber military forces.” China aims to be the world leader by 2030 in artificial intelligence.

But China is increasingly accused of cyber attacks and spying on foreign countries. In addition to the United States, countries such as India, Japan and the nations of the European Union have accused China of cyber attacks, as have India and Japan, which have tense political relations with China. Meanwhile, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation blamed China for the cyber attacks on the Australian parliament and three political parties before the Australian general election in May 2019. Consequently, these countries have begun to focus their efforts on constructing a robust cyber-defence policy.

The US: The Most Advanced but Most Vulnerable

Fast technological developments in AI have enabled American adversaries to corrode America’s traditionally superior security edge. Both Russia and China, and countries with which the US has been at standoff over nuclear issues, mainly North Korea and Iran, and the proliferation of these technologies to non-state actors and terrorist organisations whose targets have been the US and its western allies and partners, have pushed cyber defence onto the US security agenda.

The US has faced cyber and other attacks which have exposed its intelligence agencies and state secrets. Confidence in US intelligence was eroded when US agencies failed to recognise the scale of Russia’s social media meddling in the last US presidential election.  The leaking of state secrets by the former CIA system analysts and whistle-blower Edward Snowden and its mass distribution by Wikileaks exposed a chink in US cyber defence armour. These were embarrassing revelations and provided for an American cyber warfare build-up.

In recent years, the US has elevated the cyber threat as one of the top security policy issues, but its efforts in this area are not enough. Cyber defence is a complex issue with many challenges. The attribution of the attackers is the first challenge in tackling cyber warfare. The cyber attacks warrant a comprehensive restructuring of security, intelligence and defence systems, and above all prioritise how to defend the very first line of defence of a nation in the field of artificial intelligence.  The government will need to engage private sector to work in tandem to overcome the cyber security challenges.

Cyber security has only just begun to figure in discussions surrounding major international forums. Except for a meeting on the sidelines between US President Barack Obama and Putin the topic was conspicuously absent from the 2016 G20 Summit in China.  The G20 Summit this year in Japan was the first to deal comprehensively with regulation of cyberspace.  In this year’s G7 meeting in France, leaders discussed the issue but it was not central to the talks. There seems to be a lack of consensus on the shape of and even the need for cyberspace law. Complicating the international legal picture somewhat is the fact that there is no clear view on whether unconventional cyber attacks should be considered an act of war. And again, problems with attribution mean that even if international legal terms such as the use of force can be applied to the cyber realm, it is uncertain if states will have the capability to determine the aggressor in a particular cyber attack.

In conclusion, cyber attacks are here but we are ill prepared for them. Though they seem bloodless, they could potentially damage infrastructure, destroy economic or military systems, and create confusion that could even lead to nuclear war. Some, such as Elon Musk, are predicting that great power competition to dominate artificial intelligence will be in all probability a reason for a Third World War.  No modern nation is immune to such attacks, and the international community must act now to develop the political resilience and legal frameworks to deal with them.

Ashok Sharma is a visiting fellow, UNSW, Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy and an adjunct associate professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra. He is deputy chair of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, Auckland