By Andreas Kuersten
In the drag race of technological progression between national security agencies around the world, everyone has pressed relentlessly forward seeking an edge. But has this race exposed opportunity in its wake? If you can’t beat others moving forward, how about throwing it into reverse? This appears to be the thinking of Russia’s Federal Guard Service (FGS), the equivalent of the U.S.’s Secret Service. It recently dropped $15,000 on electronic typewriters in an effort to increase its production of paper documents and decrease its vulnerability to cyber-attacks and technological surveillance operations – such as the National Security Agency’s (NSA) Prism program.
This interesting tactic raises the issue of whether national security agencies are wasting money on the cyber universe (cyber tech) when they could be spending much less on and fulfilling their mandates more effectively with technology based in the physical world (physical tech). There are, of course, important considerations that go into decisions to make such moves.
Weighing in favor of the increased use of physical tech is the clear benefit of increased security from cyber-attack. These attacks are now ubiquitous with countries using them to get information from all sectors of foreign and domestic societies, facilitate and compliment physical strikes, and directly assault other entities. Examples of these actions are China’s prolific data pilfering against the U.S. and others through cyber means, Russia’s use of cyber-attacks to aid its physical invasion of Georgia in 2008, and the U.S. and Israel’s use of the Stuxnet virus to damage Iran’s nuclear capabilities in 2010. In contrast, the only ways to get at physical tech are through old fashioned means of espionage and destruction: bribery, commando operations, undercover agents, bombings, etc.
Another positive of physical tech is its relatively lower cost. The machinery, training, and personnel are generally less expensive than those comprising cyber tech. Adding to this issue is that methods for getting at physical tech do not appear to evolve at the same rate as methods of cyber-attack. Technology is developing at an exponential rate and engaging with cyber tech requires large investments to keep pace with it. Step off the gas or the checkbook for a moment and you’ve fallen behind.
There are, however, considerable negatives to having agencies or departments based on physical tech. One is that these methods substantially reduce efficiency and redundancy. Cyber tech makes sharing and backing up information much easier. While this may increase vulnerability, it also makes information and capabilities much more useful and easily deployed.
Cyber tech also does not necessarily entail a substantial decrease in security. Along with cyber-attack capabilities, cyber-defense has also developed by leaps and bounds and become incredibly formidable. It’s true that maintaining effective cyber-defense requires continuous vigilance and vigorous investment, but this can result in breakthroughs in cyber-attack and other technological fields as well.
Additionally, the world has swung remarkably in the direction of cyber tech. Almost everything is online or on networks. In order to pursue intelligence and to generally operate in this world, national security agencies must engage with cyber tech and evolve with it. Substantially withdrawing from it or ignoring it may have marginal security benefits, but will markedly impede actors from fulfilling their missions.
Ultimately, the FGS’s move in regressing technologically is equivalent to hunkering down in a bunker during battle. You increase your chances of defending the small area you have, but virtually eliminate any chance of moving forward and gaining ground. Such strategy makes sense in certain situations and for certain entities. Being akin to the Secret Service, the FGS’s mandate is predominantly defense. Specifically, the defense of very important government officials and information. Many operations in this regard are best kept close to the hip and therefore moving back to physical tech has substantial merit.
What emerges as most effective for national security agencies appears to be a mix between cyber and physical tech, with cyber being more heavily relied upon. Don’t expect to see the NSA or CIA going old school, but for the FGS this tactic makes more sense. Technological regression should be reserved for those departments looking after information of the highest security value but of least importance operationally. That best kept deep in a bunker and hardly needed outside of it. If this is indeed the strategy Russia and the FGS are implementing, they may be onto something.
Picture 1: Dake http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Dake