How Nations Use Digital Espionage Against Each Other


Over the last couple of years, countries competing for either economic or military power have either instigated or fallen victim to economic espionage. As wars become unappealing, these governments have turned to digital espionage, making cyberspace the new field of battle for nations around the world. Digital espionage is a form of hacking conducted for either political or economic reasons, such as stealing secret information to engineer new technologies based on the stolen information or strictly for political reasons. As this trend catches on, the number of economic espionage incidents is expected to increase in the future. Increased Internet penetration to all parts of the world will also promote this trend.

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Text: How Nations Use Digital Espionage

Cost of Economic Espionage

Theft of American intellectual property is estimated to cost $100 billion annually in financial losses. Theft of trade secrets takes places when someone knowingly misappropriates or steals trade secrets for the economic benefit of another person or organization other than the owner. Foreign competitors or governments responsible for digital espionage usually establish business relationships between their companies and U.S. industries with the aim of gathering intelligence and propriety information.

Cyber Espionage Incidents

In the year 2014, 548 cases of cyber espionage incidents were reported in the United States alone. Theft of trade secrets accounted for 85.8% of these incidents while theft of credentials, internal data, system data, personal data and classified data accounted for 11.4%, 8.5%, 6.6%, 2.6% and 2.4% respectively. In the last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigations reported a 53% increase in attempts to steal propriety information from U.S. companies.

It is important to note that the majority of digital espionage starts with emails. Hackers normally send emails to their targets. The recipients of these baited emails usually fall victim to digital espionage when they open emails with phishing messages (23%) or when they click on attachments (11%).

Intellectual Property Rights Violations and Practices

According to the office of U.S. Trade Representative, there are 13 countries on the priority watch list for intellectual property rights violations and practices. They are; China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Venezuela, Algeria, Ukraine, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Kuwait. This is because the majority of cyber attacks have emanated from these countries. In recent years, there have been many threats emanating from China. That is why it is on top of the watch list. Russia, due to its historical relations with the U.S., doesn’t fall behind in these attacks but many of them are from individual hackers acting independently. The number of attacks emanating from India can be attributed to the booming IT industry. In fact, India has the largest number of programmers and IT professionals in the world. Attacks from India can be attributed to independent hackers, not the government.

Espionage in Action

U.S./Israeli Espionage on Iran

In 2010, the United States and Israeli governments teamed up to suppress Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Their weapon of choice was a malicious worm known as Stuxnet. The 500kb worm infected more than 14 industrial sites in Iran, including a uranium enrichment plant. This is a great example of how digital espionage can be used to meet political ends. The success of this mission is the stuff of legends as it proved that military incursions or action is not the only way to fight a war.

Chinese Espionage on the United States

In 2013, the Department of Defense revealed that 37 Pentagon weapons programs and 29 defense technologies had been accessed by Chinese agents. A year later, there were two major breaches of U.S. government databases – the security clearance files of 22.1 million people and personnel records. This breach was attributed to Chinese hackers acting as agents of their government. Obviously, the Chinese government refuted these allegations. The incident put China on top of the watch list of countries which promote intellectual property violations and practices.

Fighting Digital Espionage

According to a recent study, over 88% of U.S. businesses and IT professions rate cyber security among the top three threats facing organizations today.

Prevention Strategies

Individual consumers, businesses, government agencies, research institutions and learning institutions use different types of strategies to combat digital espionage. 91 percent of these Internet users use a risk-based cybersecurity framework to prevent cyber attacks. On the other hand, 69 percent use cloud-based cybersecurity services. An estimated 65 percent have liaised with third party cyber security firms to improve security. On the other hand, 59 percent of users leverage big data to monitor and prevent attacks. That said, there are many others who think these attacks are imminent, so they’ve taken up cybersecurity insurance policies to protect themselves from financial losses which may result from theft of intellectual property or trade secrets. The cost of staving off cyber attacks has eaten into the profits of both small and large businesses. Many organizations have hired a chief information security officer to oversee their information security program. Threat assessments are important in improving cybersecurity because they help to identify weaknesses so that appropriate measures can be taken to improve the organization’s information security. Unfortunately, only 49 percent of organizations conduct threat assessments on a regular basis. Furthermore, only 48 percent actively monitor and analyze security intelligence. Obviously, more organizations need to adopt strategies which have proven to be affective in monitoring and preventing cyber attacks.

Cybersecurity Job Growth

There are always two sides to every story. Similarly, the threat of digital espionage has created a huge demand for cybersecurity experts. While the pros may be significantly outweighed by the cons, hundreds of thousands of people have gained employment as a result of the threat, but that is just the nature of capitalism. From the year 2010 to 2013, there was a 91 percent increase in the number of cybersecurity jobs in the United States. In 2014 alone, for instance, there were 238,158 cybersecurity job listings across the United States. As the threat continues to grow, more and more cybersecurity jobs are being created. New strategies for improving information securities are also being formulated as a result.

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