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France and Germany must join efforts to tackle cyber risks

Cyberwarfare has become an essential part of how major powers exert their influence in the world, writes Jean-Louis Gergorin. 

The three cyber superpowers – the United States, China and Russia – are today engaging in intense and wide-ranging cyber activities which, to quote Carl von Clausewitz, is the modern “continuation of politics by different means”.

The United States underestimated the longevity of its initial dominant position and quickly became exposed to foreign attacks. As early as 2011, it was hit by Iranian hackers who targeted major US financial institutions following America’s attack on the Natanz enrichment plant with the help of Israel. And in 2016 it appeared overwhelmed by the scale of Russia’s actions during the presidential election.

The United States has since responded with a comprehensive cyber strategy based on four components: defensive actions; legal actions, dubbed “name and shame”; offensive actions; and self-regulation in the private sector, particularly social media giants.

China has long understood the significance of the cyberspace. This was reflected 20 years ago by the launch of its “golden shield” which is the world’s most advanced censorship system. This also led to total bans on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and, more recently, Google, and the emergence of Chinese digital champions such as Baidu, Ali Baba and Tencent. Cyberespionage and the development of offensive cyber capabilities are the two main aspects of China’s approach.

Russia has also gone down this path with the development of a state-controlled internet that shields it from foreign influences. In March 2019, thousands of young people took the streets to protest against a law that would allow Russian authorities to block access to the global internet or parts of it at any time.

For Vladimir Putin’s regime, cyberwarfare – both defensive and offensive – is a crucial element of its confrontation with the West. Attacks by Russian state-backed hackers and social media propaganda from the Internet Research Agency in Saint-Petersburg are seen in Russia as a fair response to economic sanctions and threats posed by an enlarged NATO.

Cyberwarfare is now the most efficient and least risky way for major powers to exert their influence on others. It is also cheaper than conventional weapons, giving countries such as Iran and North Korea access to significant offensive capabilities.

In this global context, Germany and France must join their efforts in the development of such capabilities. At the International Cybersecurity Forum in Lille in January 2019, Guillaume Poupard – General Director of French cybersecurity agency ANSSI – revealed that the IT systems of some critical infrastructures in France had been penetrated with a view to prepare future cyberattacks.

The two countries have very competent agencies that should coordinate their actions: ANSSI and BSI for cybersecurity; Comcyber and CIR for offensive and defensive military actions; and the technical directorates of DGSE and the BND in the intelligence fields. Secondly, Germany and France should insist that the three social network giants – Facebook, Twitter and You Tube – combat fake foreign accounts in the EU as effectively as they do in the United States.

Should Germany and France fail to do, they will be exposed to ever increasing pressures from authoritarian regimes and greater dependence on protection from a US ally that will not hesitate to take strategic advantage of this situation.

Jean-Louis Gergorin is a professor at Sciences Po and co-author of “Cyber, La guerre permanente” published by Cerf in 2018. He was previously Executive Vice President of aerospace and defence group EADS and Head of Policy Planning at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

Published in May 2019