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Cyber Security Dilemma

June 18, 2013

John Herz, an American scholar of international relations and law is credited for coining the term “security dilemma”. The dilemma expresses how both the strong and weak states can upset the balance of power that could eventually become a catalyst for war. The security dilemma could arise from the state’s accumulation of power due to fear and uncertainty about other states’ intentions. Post-9/11, successive US administrations have mostly attempted to handle global disorder by accumulating more “power”. Not surprisingly, since 2007, the US has been collecting and analysing significant amount of data available in the cyber space.

Cyber security dilemma of the US was recently exposed by the US whistle-blower Edward Snowden, giving details about the US National Security Agency’s controversial Prism programme. The US, clearly has been monitoring the global e-traffic covertly and in the process checking on cyber activities on Google, You Tube, Skype, Facebook, etc. This has resulted in a huge amount of metadata (a data about data). The metadata describes how and when and by whom a particular set of data was collected, and how this data is formatted. A simple example could be, a state tracking the activities of the individuals, for example, which journalists or lawyers were in contact with whom (telephone/chat), for how long and where, etc. Such data could be used to draw inferences.

To put it simply, the US administration has been spoofing on the rest of the world. Not surprisingly, the US authorities are upset with Snowden, who is currently hiding in Hong Kong, and even accusing him of treason. Snowden’s disclosure has raised a major debate between security and privacy.

In the 21st century, with the number of computer and internet users is increasing significantly, the cyber environment has almost become fundamental to a nation’s ‘existence’. Over the years Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have become central to various sectors from social, economic, political to defence. The fillip side to it is that various unauthorised, illegal, criminal, anti-national and terrorist activities have also become rampant. Astonishing as it may sound, but the third most populous country after China and India is not any geographical entity but a ‘virtual state’ called facebook!

The present nature of cyber technology is such that any activity undertaken in the cyber world would always leave a ‘track’ behind. It is but obvious that technologically superior state or even an individual having a requisite wherewithal would try to exploit this technology to their advantage.

The recent discloser of the US cyber spying activities exposes the actual intentions of this so called conscience keeper of democracy! Interestingly, the Obama administration is not even apologetic about this revelation. The human rights activists and states who are under the US surveillance consider it an anti-democratic act that undermines the civil liberties and individual privacy. The absence of a globally accepted cyber regime and legal structure adds further to the commotion. The excessive dependence on cyber tools has given rise to various vulnerabilities. Recently the US National Security Agency chief Gen Keith Alexander, who also heads the US military's Cyber Command, has expressed concerns and is of the opinion that on a scale of 1 to 10, the US critical infrastructure's preparedness to withstand a destructive cyber attack is about 3, this in spite the US having established a major defence infrastructure to defend against foreign hackers and spies. This assessment would push the US to strengthen its defences further. However, since the nature of the threat is extremely dynamic it may not be possible to build any foolproof defensive mechanism.

Any cyber architecture can be viewed as a doubled edged sword – either ignore it and be exposed or use it to one’s advantage. Cyber espionage is here to stay. Today, the US is upfront because of its technological superiority and ability to ‘manage’ the ICT industry and prevent few acts of terrorism from actually happening. More importantly, the data gathered would have utility in other fields too.

Snowden has clearly exposed the US but it is hard to imagine that the US would halt its cyber activities. As a leading power, the US is accustomed to international criticism, lawsuits and questioning and at the end of the day cyber spying and spoofing actually strengthens their intelligence gathering capability.

It is important to note that cyber expertise offers significant amount of asymmetric advantage to the user. In the future, it is not only the US but many other states that are also likely to use this method (mostly covertly). Some of the states may already have the structures operational. It is unlikely that any state/intelligence agency could give-up such a beneficial tool.

Given the cyber reality, ‘sensible’ powers should work towards a globally acceptable cyber regime to bring in a set of rules, build transparency and reduce vulnerabilities. States would support a cyber regime essentially because intelligence collection is not the sole purpose for possessing cyber assets. ITC also leads to empowerment and its importance for socioeconomic development s undisputed. In general, the norms of privacy in a cyber-era world would remain a constant subject of debate since the nature of technology presents a challenging task to catch the actual offender. Technologically superior power would always have an advantage. The time has come to recognize that in the future we would always be watched and mostly against our own wishes!


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Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.