Written by Andrea Abril
The significance of cyberspace today is undeniable, so much so that year after year the states, companies and institutions of the international system work tirelessly to control and protect it. The current reality is marked by the value of data, which is the new gold of the 21st century, and whose exposure can alter the status quo of a country, highlighting the sensitivity of data and the lack of security that protects the individuals who own it.
There are two general types of threats in cyberspace. On the one hand, cyber-attacks, understood as disruptive actions that act against technological systems and elements. Examples of this are ransomware attacks and data hacking. On the other hand, there also exists the use of cyberspace for illicit activities such as cybercrime, cyber espionage, terrorist financing or the promotion of radicalisation. Both types represent a fracture point to state security, as the vulnerability of cyberspace is directly related to disinformation campaigns, foreign interference by espionage, threats to critical infrastructure, and aerospace and energy vulnerability (ESN, 2021).
In the case of a single state such as Spain, speaking of cybersecurity requires considering at least two dimensions: (1) national – the protection of goods, assets, services, rights and freedoms dependent on state jurisdiction; and (2) global – shared responsibility with other states, bilaterally or through supranational organisations, on cybersecurity (Fojón & Sanz, 2022). Because we live in a globalised world, cyberspace is also globalised and so are the threats to it. If one state suffers a threat in its national cyberspace, it can easily spread to the entire international system. The global dimension therefore acquires crucial importance.
Spain has made cybersecurity a state policy and is taking steps to control the threat posed by cyberspace. It is currently in the process of approving the most ambitious National Cybersecurity Plan to date, replacing the 2019 plan. The new plan includes more than a hundred essential actions to guarantee national cybersecurity, such as “the creation of an integrated system of cybersecurity indicators at the state level; the constitution of the Cybersecurity Operations Centre of the General State Administration and its public bodies and, finally, the implementation of the National Platform for Notification and Monitoring of Cyber Incidents and Threats” (Real Instituto el Cano, 2022). The main objective of this article is to focus on the relationship between cyberspace and three different threats to Spain’s national security, examining real-life examples that show how these factors compromise the country’s security, thus affecting individuals nationally and globally.
- Disinformation campaigns
Disinformation campaigns have a clear impact on national security and must be differentiated from other activities, such as fake news or misinformation. In fact, disinformation campaigns do not necessarily contain false news but are created deliberately with the aim to distort reality through manipulated content (ESN, 2021).
The rapid development of digital technologies and platforms in recent years has meant that we live in an increasingly interconnected world, which directly affects information. Today, the flow of information and disinformation has accelerated, travelling rapidly through cyberspace and reaching every corner of the globe. Democratic states, therefore, wage a relentless battle against this threat, as it can compromise their stability.
In the case of Spain, the country is committed to this fight and has established permanent coordination mechanisms between the different bodies of the public administration, including the Permanent Commission for the Fight against Disinformation, created in 2019 (MAEC, 2021). There are also civil society groups and organisations working for more truthful journalism, an example is the group ‘Maldito Bulo’ [Damn Hoax], which exposes potential fake news circulating on networks, denouncing them if necessary and classifying them as hoaxes or not. They act on social networks, but above all on Twitter, a platform that has become a perfect breeding ground for manipulating information. One example is how political parties of any ideology often make use of bots and armies of trolls on social networks. These fake user accounts serve to interact with political parties that buy them to have more activity on social networks and, therefore, visibility. These fake users also comment and interact negatively with the publications of the other political parties, thus trying to manipulate the opinion of the voters in which they generate a false negative first impression (Pérez, 2020).
According to one of the researchers from the Cybersecurity and Cyberdefense team at the University of Murcia, Félix Gómez Mármol, whose study was based on analysing the 825,000 profiles that tweeted information related to the November 11 elections in Spain, from the 27.000 bots identified, 3,000 of them could be classified as ‘related’ to one of the five main political parties of Spain: VOX (49.84%), Unidas Podemos (20.66%), PSOE (12.87%), Ciudadanos (10.42%) and PP (6.21%), which suggests, as he clarifies, that these bots were mainly aimed at the most extreme parties on the fringes of the political spectrum.
These bots increased their activity on key days of the campaign, such as the exhumation of the dictator Franco or during televised political debates (Félix Gómez Mármol, 2020).
Figure 1: Relationships between the bots attributed to the main political parties of Spain during the last electoral campaign of 2019, according to an academic article from the University of Murcia
- Espionage and interference from abroad
States are often threatened by external actors, and their cyberspace is no different. The targets of hostile foreign intelligence services are not limited to Spanish governmental institutions and information, but also affect other sectors, such as the defence industry, critical infrastructure, scientific and technological research, and other areas of the private sector (ESN, 2021). These threats are frequently driven by the self-interest of some states and can affect a country’s territorial unity and sovereignty by influencing nationalist and independence movements.
An illustrative example is the Russian interference in Catalonia. The Russian government had previously shown interest in pro-independence movements, such as in Scotland. In the Catalan case, days before the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of Catalonia on 27 October 2017, Russian representatives met with the then president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, to offer him 10,000 soldiers and to pay the Catalan debt in exchange for permissive legislation on cryptocurrencies. This would have turned Catalonia into a new Switzerland (García, 2021). In fact, according to the tapped audios on the phone of Víctor Terradellas, Puigdemont’s interlocutor with Russia, this offer was even considered but ultimately rejected. This interference is being investigated through the ‘Voloh case’ initiated in 2020, which revealed contacts between high-ranking politicians in Catalonia and representatives of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia through the tapping of the mobile phones of 18 people involved (García, 2021).
- Terrorism and violent radicalisation
Another reason why cybersecurity poses a crucial threat to Spain’s national security is the promotion of radicalisation. Terrorist recruitment networks have found the internet to be a quick and easy means to recruit allies to collaborate and carry out attacks of any kind. This activity has increased because of polarisation and the economic crisis (ESN, 2021).The internet can be used for the glorification of terrorist acts, incitement to commit acts of terrorism, radicalisation and recruitment of terrorists, dissemination of illegal content, facilitating communication between terrorist actors and the training of potential recruits (UNODC, 2012).
Within the borders of Spain, the main threat comes from individuals born or raised in Western countries that are radicalised and attack in their own area of residence (ESN, 2021). The victims of this recruitment are usually young people under the age of thirty from a variety of profiles and contexts.
Due to the imprecision and global nature of this threat, multiple actors in the international system work together to eradicate it. In the case of the European Union, the terrorist attacks on March 11 2004 in Madrid initiated a change of mentality. Shortly after this event, the Declaration of the Council of Europe of March 25 2004 was created, in which the prevention of violent radicalisation is incorporated as a strategic objective in the fight against terrorism (Bazaga & Tamayo, 2021).
It is clear how a threat to cybersecurity is a threat to the state, since it operates in all areas of a country, and can influence people, thus affecting democracy by altering the electoral processes, mass opinion, threatening the territorial unity of the country, the efficiency of its critical infrastructures, the security of society and the fight against terrorism. If one thing has become clear, it is that those most affected are citizens. Therefore, in order to combat threats in cyberspace and prevent them from posing a fracture point to our security, states, institutions of the international system, and the private sector should work hand-in-hand; since these threats do not have an expiry date, they are hybrid and ambiguous and their development has only just begun.
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