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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Why liberal democracies have a distinct edge on cyber capability

According to a recent report on the cyber capabilities of 15 countries, the US is the world’s only cyber superpower. China is the leading power in the next tier, along with Russia, the UK, Israel, France, Australia and Canada. India is placed in the third tier, alongside Iran, Japan, Malaysia, North Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia. The International Institute of Strategic Studies net assessment of Cyber Capabilities and National Power compares countries across seven dimensions ranging from doctrines to offensive capabilities, and concludes that China and Russia are much farther behind the US than popular media reports would suggest.

The rankings do not come as a surprise, but serve as a reminder to our domestically preoccupied political establishment of the reality that India punches far below its weight in the cyber power domain. If the report had included other technologically advanced European and Indo-Pacific countries, India’s ranking might have dipped even further. Unless India’s leaders realize that having a big technology industry is not the same as being a cyber power, we are likely to become a big poorly-defended target.

One of the most significant findings hidden in the report is a doctrinal difference between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. According to the report, “What sets the US apart on offensive cyber is its ability to employ a sophisticated, surgical capability at scale". One instance of this was the Stuxnet attack that stymied Iran’s uranium-enrichment programme last decade. For China and Russia, though, offensive cyber “is just the technical component of a wider information-operations capability... of controlling their own information space, and subverting those of their adversaries, in what they see as an ongoing conflict of ideas with the West." To put it simply, America mostly hacks networks. China and Russia hack minds.

Some analysts might attribute these differences in doctrine to astute Chinese and Russian wisdom. After all, cyber war is politics by other means, and politics is ultimately a contest for the mind. Information operations—well, propaganda—aim for psychological and cognitive effects bypassing physical battlefields and computer networks. Some ancient text can be mined to argue that information operations are the acme of strategy, for they enable you to defeat the adversary without having to fight a single battle.

Perhaps there is something to the argument. But what is clear is that regimes that depend on hiding information for their survival will want to build walls, moats or even isolate themselves from the rest of the world. Not only do they need to protect their citizens from foreign ideas, but erect psychological barriers in their minds. China’s elaborate system of censorship, coercion and information control exists to protect its Communist Party regime from being threatened by Chinese citizens. As the report says, cyber capabilities are “just as much an arm of those states’ propaganda machines, and a means of creating and delivering ‘fake news’, as it is a means of penetrating an adversary’s critical infrastructure."

So far, liberal democracies did not have to worry about defending their ideological frontiers to the same extent as authoritarian states. A freer flow of information is unlikely to disturb Joe Biden’s hold on power as much as Xi Jinping’s or Vladimir Putin’s. Open societies are vulnerable to disinformation campaigns by their adversaries, but at a fundamental level, they do not have to fear sunlight. This confers on them a fundamental advantage.

Unlike authoritarian states, liberal democracies do not have to expend resources on controlling what their citizens think. This allows them to focus on offensive capabilities to achieve the desired effect in a sharp and surgical manner. The report claims it is hard for China, Russia and the others to match the US given their preoccupation with ideological defences. Estimates are not available, but Beijing likely spends a lot more on its Great Firewall than on its offensive cyber units. The opportunity cost of information censorship manifests as a structural disadvantage in cyber capability. Of course, the US—like other liberal democracies—does foreign propaganda, and well. But its resources are not drained by censorship costs.

Further, hacking minds is a superior approach to the extent that the psychological effects are effective and durable. While they can interfere in elections or exacerbate civil unrest, Russian or Chinese information operations are unlikely to remould liberal democracies in their image. Unfashionable as it is now, a longer view of history suggests that Francis Fukuyama is right, and given a choice, people will prefer openness and freedom. The erosion of liberty around the world has more to do with the political consequences of social media than anything Beijing or Moscow planned.

This is not an argument for dropping our guard. Open societies need to be vigilant against technology becoming a Trojan horse for both cyber attackers and illiberal values. The answer, however, is not to build walls that create shadows where nasty things can lurk. It is to draw up the curtains, open the doors and let more sunlight in.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.

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