Max Smart, the 60’s spy comedy hero, had a phone in his shoe and a camera to take photos of sensitive documents in a pen. While those technological advances have since found their way into reality, only to be substantially surpassed, it may be that the future will even make the spy himself obsolete.
Most readers would have to be hiding under a rock to not have heard something about the many cyber-related political swings that occurred over the past couple of years. Because of the sudden and sometimes immense efforts of smaller or emerging nation-states, as well as the push for greater levels of control from existing superpowers, a veritable cyber arms race is shaping up, creating new risks and new containment requirements for governments.
The cyber arms race makes a lot of sense for governments particularly those without substantial arms budgets. While the average cost of a Tomahawk Missile is around $1.8 million dollars, an entire cyber hacking department could potentially be funded for a month for that cost.
While the overall loss of life may be far less with cyber attacks, the resultant damage and fear that can be caused can sometimes be more. And because the control of the expensive weaponry is now almost entirely digital, hackers with enough skill can actually take control of the very thing that has been purchased, and at a fraction of the cost.
Further, because political alliances are often of great importance, and because elections are so strongly influenced by news and digital advertising, cyber control over election formats has become critical. The proliferation of fake news during the Trump election is just a small taste of what the future of election planning and organisation may hold. A cyber arms race would only further entrench some of the most substantial issues that faced the US during that election and that have faced smaller nations (the Philippines, for example) in previous elections.
Third, countries are finding that much of what was done by physical spies in the middle of the last century can increasingly be accomplished through digital espionage. Hackers and teams of digital spies can infiltrate, discover, and distribute information without leaving the comfort of an underground armchair. While the need for spies on the ground will never end completely, the days of breaking into file cabinets and taking photos of secret documents may have been forever replaced by banks of computers being controlled by nerdy computer science majors.
This type of cyber attack can also be deployed against the civilians of nations, allowing governments to have substantial awareness of much of what takes place in the private lives of their citizens. While much ink has been spilt over the nature of these intrusions, the ability to carry them out is unquestioned.
With the increase in the cyber arms race, the potential for damage through digital attacks has continued to increase. While these risks bring major challenges to nations seeking to protect their sovereignty, they also bring financial advantages, as the spies of yesterday are outmoded.