The Cloak & Dagger – Spy from the Web

The Cloak & Dagger – Spy from the Web

The Cloak & Dagger – Spy from the Web

Shrey Madaan

Research Associate, Cyber Peace Foundation

The act of spying is so closely related to the human nature of greed, personal benefits and even political interest. It is an internationally debated issue whether to believe it is equivalent to military warfare or not. However, the issue has not been completely settled yet. But we can come to a consensus that both activities are dangerous to humankind.[1]

There are many reasons for this but arguably the most important to consider is human nature and how easy it is for people to give in to their temptation. It is one of the easiest methods to obtain industrial secrets, payment information, IP addresses, research data, business plans, military plans and political tactics.

And to maintain a competitive edge over other nations, many organizations indulge in various cyber espionage activities. In recent scenarios, it has reached a different level; organizations, corporations and even individuals often face cyber-attacks from foreign countries.

Cyberspace is no longer the wild wild west; it is now a fully developed environment with a range of laws, a body of governing laws, and institutions to enforce those laws. However, with cyberlaw still being in the nascent stages, we are still far from the point where there are universally recognized acts or rules. Despite all these intense efforts, it has become one of the biggest risks to the safety of businesses and governments alike.

In 2013, a U.S cybersecurity company published a report accusing the Chinese military of espionage to procure trade secrets. Although the Chinese military denied the allegations, the company’s system encountered penetrations and data theft. In response, Mandiant (an American Cybersecurity firm) released numerous reports exposing the cyber-espionage groups and their host countries. [2]

In March 2021, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team exposed yet another trace of cyber actors linked to China and Pakistan.[3]

In the past seven years, it has grown to be one of the biggest threats to cyber defenders. According to Verizon’s 2020 Cyber Espionage Report, State-affiliated breaches and financial gluttony are the leading motives affecting cyberspace by 85% and 86% respectively. Hackers are now even capable of offering their services by performing the duties of cyber mercenaries by targeting organizations and countries that need hackers or security experts. [4]

This is a crime that translates from traditional politics into a digital one and operates on similar strategies. Thus, extracting valuable information is now done wirelessly with a lot more ease to any adversary whether it is a business rival, terrorist or foreign government. It is not only about secrets stolen but also about losing intellectual property, money, goodwill and quite often customers’ confidence.

Numerous events may have led to the evolution of espionage in cyberspace. The first one, and perhaps the most important, is the global proliferation of well-developed cyber-crime technologies and its increasing ability to spy on virtually any secure computer in any private company or government.

It not only compromises the data of renowned enterprises but preys on most medium and small companies as well. The rate at which businesses are getting hacked or having their security compromised is rising significantly year over year. For one in five enterprises, more than 60 % of businesses go bankrupt. It is a consequence of people’s rising concerns over economic downfalls, recessions, fear of financial insecurity. These factors lead employees to commit fraud, trade-off company’s secrets and execute cyber espionage. [5]

We often consider the digital world as intangible, but that is far from the truth. Cyberspace does have some physical traits despite existing only in 1’s and 0’s. Some cybercrimes are nothing more than money-making schemes, while others manipulate online communications, social multiplicity, racial profiling, and alters the state of human consciousness. The curious part is how these are based on social engineering and are capable of hampering human emotions. Cybercriminals advance their attacks with spear phishingwatering holeszero-day exploits, etc. to mislead victims who often act out of fear, curiosity or agitation.

However, much of the news coverage about cyber espionage is limited to what we know from the publicized breaches. Perhaps a more interesting story lies below the headlines about cyber espionage’s evolution over time and how the tactics mimic social structures that were prominent in the early history of mankind. Cyber espionage can be perceived as a source of frustration and a reminder that the threat to our digital lives isn’t certainly opaque.

[1] Cyberwar: How Nations Attack Without Bullets Or Bombs

[2]Threat Intelligence Reports

[3] China unit targets Indian telcos, firms in cyber espionage

[4] Cyber Mercenaries: The State Hackers and Power

[5] E-espionage


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