NATO and the Cyber Security Imperative

In an increasingly interconnected electronic world, cyber defence has been pushed to the forefront of the agenda for NATO’s defence ministers. American Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has been particularly outspoken on behalf of his country in condemning recent cyber-attacks believed to be originating with the Chinese government and military. While modern technological advances is undoubtedly a boon to companies and governments in terms of the ease with which they can share information and communicate with partners thousands of miles away, the era of technological globalization also presents new challenges and threats.

Given that nearly every facet of 21st century life is bound up in technology, particularly in the Western world, cyber-attacks are uniquely positioned to bring corporations and governments to a standstill more quickly and brutally than traditional warfare. From health care to financial markets, the vast quantities of confidential data stored electronically must be defended as stringently as national borders. Multinational organizations such as NATO are particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks since member states have diverse political and economic viewpoints and so no coherent defence strategy exists.However, recent attempts by NATO members to address this issue are a positive and proactive step towards  agreement on the issue of cyber-security.

The recent increase in the United States’ presence in the Pacific has sparked speculation that they are attempting to balance against China’s considerable power in the region by increasing strategic engagement with other regional powers. American activities in East Asia have emphasized the importance of cyber security and countering potential attacks on classified online data. Recent cyber attacks targeting U.S. military data and commercial intellectual property have prompted a convention of NATO’s member countries to discuss these electronic threats and propose lines of defence. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has identified cyber security as a pressing topic in the maintenance and improvement of international political and economic relationships.

NATO’s cyber defence centre in Tallinn, Estonia has been working to tighten electronic security within the organization’s extensive networks of information. As one of the most electronically connected countries in the world, Estonia has become a leader in cyber defence since falling prey to a series of cyber attacks in 2007 believed to have originated in Russia.  23 of the 28 member states, Canada among them, have formed an alliance to “exchange information and help in the event of a cyber attack”. Canada has also aligned with Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and Romania to launch the “Multinational Cyber Defence Capability Project,” a five year program intended to facilitate the exchange of technical information in an efficient and secure forum and develop cutting-edge cyber security sensors to guard such information. This innovative project illustrates the changing nature of defence strategy and encourages defence spending that takes this evolution into account.

The member states of NATO vary greatly with regard to their priorities and the resources available to them. As such, the willingness of the majority of these governments to come together in order to share knowledge and build stronger defences is an admirable display of international cooperation. While a senior NATO official has stated that the cyber defence centre has no plans to develop offensive capacities, it is recognized that member states may diverge in how they will handle potential future attacks on their cyber strongholds.

US Secretary of Defense Chuch Hagel speaks about cyber security at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference in Singapore.

As one of NATO’s most powerful and targeted member states, the United States has begun to take a lead role in identifying cyber attackers and holding them accountable, with Hagel’s pointed calling out of China standing as the most recent example. An American cyber security firm has laid accusations against the shadowy Unit 61398 of China’s People’s Liberation Army, stating that they have “systematically stolen hundreds of terabytes of data from at least 141 organizations”. Although the United States has been vocal in its support of a prosperous and powerful China, it has demonstrated that it will not hesitate to criticize China should it continue to cross cyber battle-lines or fail to control the more radical units within its military.

While China’s Defence Ministry has staunchly denied any part in the attacks, stating that in fact their own country is unduly persecuted by cyber hackers, Washington is holding fast to its accusations. Pentagon and White House officials allege that recent reports have shown the Chinese military repeatedly targeting American government computers in attempts to unearth confidential data files.

The recent upswing in American military deployment to the Pacific region is a clear signal that the U.S. intends to strengthen their defences and maintain its strong presence within the cyber-sphere and beyond. At a recent security conference in Beijing, Hagel stressed the importance of cross-national cooperation andinternationally recognized guidelines with regard to cyber security and online behaviour standards. In moving forward, an open dialogue between NATO’s member states that takes their diverse perspectives into account is an essential step in the formation of a cyber defence strategy that can withstand attacks from multiple fronts.

About Avery Bruenjes

Avery Bruenjes is a J.D. Candidate (2015) at the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University and holds a B.A.(Hons) in Contemporary Studies and English from the University of King's College. Driven by her interest in women's rights, Avery worked this past year to co-design a program educating women who are currently in or recently departed from abusive relationships on issues of custody and legal rights. Her other research interests include international conflict resolution and the changing nature of domestic and international surveillance.