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Christopher Burgess
Contributing Writer

Global trends will increase nation-state threats for the US in next 20 years

Apr 21, 20215 mins
CyberattacksRisk Management

US intelligence agencies predict more nation-state-sponsored cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, cyberespionage and intellectual property theft in the coming decades.

A laptop with a virtual overlay of abstract code and a binary skull.
Credit: Igor Kutyaev / Getty Images

Expect nation-state-sponsored threats to intensify in the coming two decades, according to two new reports released in the first half of April by United States intelligence agencies. Competitive and adversarial relations with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea percolate to the top, while global issues like the pandemic and economic migration will strain governments around the world, including the US.

The leading actors will be no surprise: China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea will boost their efforts to spy, disrupt critical infrastructure, spread disinformation, and steal intellectual property and money.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) set a baseline of understanding on the threats to the US posed by nation-states, terrorists and criminal entities with its Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community. The National Intelligence Council provides a look over the horizon as far out as 2040 with the issuance of the quadrennial Global Trends 2040 –  More Contested World.

In releasing the ODNI report to the public, Avril Haines, director national intelligence, said, “The American people should know as much as possible about the threats facing our nation and what their intelligence agencies are doing to protect them. This report provides transparency to Congress and our nation’s citizens with the aim of bolstering trust in our work and institutions.”

The concisely written assessment minces no words: China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran are the four primary provocateurs engaging the US. While transnational issues such as COVID-19, climate change, emerging technologies, foreign illicit drugs, and organized crime, as well as global terrorism present ongoing challenges. This is how the ODNI report described the threats presented by each of the four adversarial countries:

China focuses on cyberespionage, information suppression

The ODNI assesses China as presenting “a prolific and effective cyberespionage threat.” The country has substantial cyberattack capabilities and is becoming a bigger influence threat. “China’s cyber pursuits and proliferation of related technologies increase the threats of cyberattacks against the US homeland, suppression of US web content that Beijing views as threatening to its internal ideological control, and the expansion of technology-driven authoritarianism around the world,” said the report’s authors.

To achieve their cyberespionage goals, China can be expected to continue apace, as they strive to compromise “telecommunications firms, providers of managed services and broadly used software.”

Russia the biggest cyberattack threat to US

Russia remains the number one cyber threat to the US as it “refines and employs its espionage, influence, and attack capabilities,” according to the ODNI. Russia has demonstrated its capabilities in the successful targeting of supply chain and critical infrastructure (to include global telecommunications systems and industrial command and control (SCADA). Not only is Russia attacking networks for the purposes of collecting information, the ODNI noted that Russia has demonstrated its “ability to damage infrastructure in a crisis.” 

Iran a threat to critical infrastructure

Iran has repeatedly demonstrated its capability to conduct attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, the ODNI assessed Iran to be a significant threat to US security. They have also shown themselves to be adroit at cyber operations, to include those operations conducted strictly for espionage purposes. The ODNI specifically calls out Iran’s continued foray into the realm of misinformation and disinformation.

North Korea a source of theft and disruption

The threat posed by North Korea, according to the ODNI, falls into three silos, “espionage, theft, and attack.” The ODNI assessed that North Korea could conduct cyber operations targeting critical infrastructure and business networks in the US. In addition, North Korea could likely also target and compromise software supply chains.

Somewhat unique to North Korea is the use of cyber operations to garner hard currency. North Korea has shown itself willing to attack global financial institutions, successfully stealing millions of dollars to fund their domestic (nuclear/military) agenda.

Global trends to drive nation-state threats

The Global Trends 2040 report from the National Intelligence Council (part of the ODNI), projects the expected threats for the next 20 years. It identified four structural forces that will shape the future: demographics, the environment, economics, and technology.

The report points out the importance of nations expanding technological, network, and information power. “[This] will complement more traditional military, economic, and soft power aspects of the international system.” China and the US will work to “shape the global norms, rules and institutions” in such a manner as to advance their own interests, according to the report.

Nations, and by extension those companies within each nation, may expect a “combination of highly destructive and precise conventional and strategic weapons, cyber activity targeting civilian and military infrastructure, and a confusing disinformation environment.” The report also concludes that nation-states will accelerate their use of surrogates and proxies to achieve national goals.

The recent actions by the US to reign in the proxies of Russia serve as a useful barometer in the realm of disinformation. Russia, China, and Iran have their fingers deep into the disinformation/misinformation pie and can be expected to continue to promulgate false narratives, making it more difficult to sort out truth from untruths.

Especially noteworthy to CIOs and CISOs are the efforts by nation-states to control key sites of exchange such as telecommunications, finance, data flows, and manufacturing supply chains. “[This] will give countries and corporations the ability to gain valuable information, deny access to rivals, and even coerce behavior,” said the report. It goes on to note the disproportionate concentration of networks in the US, Europe and China—not an insignificant consideration for the multinational conglomerates of the future.

Christopher Burgess
Contributing Writer

Christopher Burgess is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former senior security advisor to Cisco, and has also been a CEO/COO with various startups in the data and security spaces. He served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Cisco gave him a stetson and a bottle of single-barrel Jack upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit, Senior Online Safety.

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