LAST week, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia convened the 31st Asia-
Pacific Roundtable (APR), which was attended by approximately 260 local and international policywatchers
of the region.
As it has for decades, the APR deliberated in comprehensive fashion a number of strategic issues
confronting the security of the region.
One of those discussions centred around emerging tensions in cyberspace between the private
sector, on the one hand, and governments, on the other; the former, with its prioritisation of privacy
and trust to catalyse technological innovation in order to capture an ever-growing market share, and
the latter, focused on preempting, preventing, and defending against threats to national security.
Anchored by a majority panel of private sector players, it was an unconventional session that
captured participants’ attention (at least that of those who remained) for its currency and complexity.
Participants stayed either because they actually understood the issues being discussed, or out of a
desire to understand the fuzzy logic of cyberspace.
“Cyber” has become one of those buzzwords that people “get”, yet don’t really get. We understand
how pervasive the cyber domain has become, given how much of our lives is spent on it, yet we do
not fully comprehend the networks, systems, infrastructure, and above all, trust that underpin it.
We transact in cyberspace, yet we do not always grasp how the security of our data lies first and
foremost with us. We realise how vulnerable we are in cyberspace, given how much of ourselves we
divulge in it, yet we overlook just how much of our identity can be pieced together with enough
We entrust our data to the companies that store and transfer them, yet we are caught unawares when
governments exploit vulnerabilities to mine that data for national security purposes.
Cyberspace and cyber security, therefore, are ethereal notions that we have come to accept in our
lexicon, but have not yet begun to assume responsibility for or assign accountability to.
In large part, this is because unlike the natural domains of air, land, sea and space, the infrastructure
of cyberspace — from fibre-optic cables to servers that maintain “clouds” — is man-made and,
therefore, shared and governed by multiple stakeholders.
The private sector builds, owns, and maintains much of the physical infrastructure, or hardware, of
cyberspace. Large technological multinational companies (MNCs) also provide the software that
make up the soft underbelly of this super structure — from desktop programmes to mobile
The size, revenue and influence of some of these giant MNCs dwarf smaller nation-states and
economies. They operate across jurisdictions but have to comply with local regulations.
This means that they serve not only individual clients, but also governments that may have very
different — and occasionally, conflicting — interests in using or leveraging the same products and
Companies that profit off cyberspace understand that trust in open, distributed programmes, networks
and systems is key to making it all work.
Individual end-users expect that the information they send on invisible networks will be routed to and
received by intended recipients in whole, rather than in part.
Until recently, as exposed by the Snowden leaks, there was also a certain naiveté that the privacy of
this information would not be deliberately or accidentally compromised by the technology companies
transmitting this information through the different states they operate in.
To say that borders do not exist in cyberspace is misleading. Data servers, for one, are physically
located within a country’s borders and protection of that data is subjected to laws governing that state.
Additionally, as with the Apple vs Federal Bureau of Investigation case last year, a nation’s laws on
free speech and privacy may determine the extent to which technology companies can guarantee
They may also inadvertently afford mass murderers, terrorists, gang-bangers, and paedophiles, to
paraphrase former FBI director James Comey, the opportunity to exploit encryption in the name of
What can be hard-hittingly borderless, however, is the impact of a government’s interface with
This was most recently demonstrated by the scale and spread of the ransomware WannaCry, which
affected more than 10 nations as well as their critical national infrastructure, like the United Kingdom’s
National Health Service.
Although chiefly a criminal campaign despite rumoured links to a nation-state, WannaCry was drawn
from — and its effects exacerbated by — a Microsoft vulnerability that had initially and allegedly been
part of the United States’ National Security Agency’s offensive cyber arsenal.
This stockpiling by governments of what are called zero-day vulnerabilities, or programmatic flaws
that are left undisclosed to be exploited to attack users, infrastructure, even countries, is shining new
light on old frictions between technology companies and nation-states.
WannaCry showed that when giants collide in cyberspace, individuals end up paying in real life.
There are other important, strategic implications to be drawn from these unfolding developments,
including how nation-states should behave with each other in cyberspace, what role the private sector
should have in that debate, and whether a nuclear deterrence-like concept could work in cyberspace.
As technologically-advanced countries build up and boldly declare their offensive cyber capabilities,
there are suggestions that the threat of mutually assured disruption will preserve stability in both the
virtual and physical realms.
It is, therefore, critical that we begin to understand the multi-layered, overlapping nature of
cyberspace, as well as the opportunities and inherent tensions that inextricably, yet, awkwardly
connect its private, public and individual stakeholders.
Article by Elina Noor appeared in New Straits Times , 2 June 2017.