The Cyber Losers: The Weaponization of Cyberspace and Its Affect on Human and Democracy Rights

The Cyber Losers: The Weaponization of Cyberspace and Its Affect on Human and Democracy Rights

I just returned from the International Studies Association conference in Toronto, Canada where thousands of scholars from around the world gathered to discuss virtually every topic imaginable related to international affairs. I presented two papers on two separate panels. Below is a topline summary of one paper and its substantive findings and relevant criticism from a panel of experts. This paper will be published in the academic journal “Democracy and Security” in a forthcoming edition. 

Are national security issues in cyberspace were spurring states to “arm” themselves with cyber tools, capabilities, and laws to combat one another? And if states are arming themselves what does this mean for human and democracy rights activists with substantially fewer resources than nation states? 

With a limited sample I built a case for the existence of a security dilemma in cyberspace and then attempted to establish a correlation between increases in cyber capabilities, tools and legal and regulatory developments to the oppression of state actors. What might you ask is the security dilemma? The definition of the security dilemma comes from Robert Jervis who states: “many of the means by which a state tries to increase its security decrease the security of others.” The security dilemma is the central thesis of realist international politics as outlined by Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, John Mearsheimer, and others. To survive, states must establish and maintain their relative power positions in the context of other states. Figure 1 & 2 below illustrate the security dilemma as it is developed in cyberspace. 

For the measure I simply looked at aggregate capabilities with no weighted preference associated with capability type included within this was the understanding that laws and regulations can facilitate the smooth operation of state activities in cyberspace and also provide states with justification for utilizing cyber tools and capabilities against their own citizens. 

Figure 1: Cyber Capabilities by Country Since 1995

Figure 2: Cyber Capabilites Over Time Within Sample


What we see in both the above figures is relationship between states starting with major power players such as the United States, the Russian Federation, and the People’s Republic of China. After these major power players start developing tools many of the smaller regional states begin to also develop tools and capabilities in response and there begins a cycle of development. 

Following the assertion that there is indeed a security dilemma in cyberspace I hypothesized two relationships between the creation of capabilities by states and Internet freedom broadly. These stylized relationships are represented in figures 3 - 4 below. 

Figure 3: Stylized Hypothesized Relationship of Internet Freedom to State Cyber Capabilities

Figure 4: Stylized Corresponding Trends of Digital Human Rights Violations and State Cyber Capabilities


The problem I ran into was how to measure Digital Human Rights violations en masse. There is no single accurate measure of digital human rights violations available. Even the term digital human rights violations is a bit loaded. The goal was to pull to the forefront the notion of states using digital tools to stifle dissent and oppress their citizens in cyberspace within their national borders. This can be measured in several ways. I chose to use three proxy measures of state oppression online including Google Takedown Requests, Herdict crowdsourced data, and WSDDN data from Philip Howard.

The data from various sources was collected, measured, and graphed to illustrate a correlated relationship between state cyber capability development and digital human rights violations. Fiture 5 below illustrates the overlayed trends of the various measures. As is evident the stylized time delayed relationship between state cyber capabilities appears to accurately represent reality.

Figure 5: Overlay of Capabilities and Proxy Measures of Digital Human Rights Violations


Although the trend analysis is not perfect, the comparison across the three datasets representing digital and human rights violations appear to approximately match the general trend in the development or purchase of cyber capabilities by states. Absolute numbers are not comparable, rather it is the upward trends that we are most interested in. Absolute numbers are not comparable for the simple reason that one filtering technology developed or one computer network attack tool is capable of effecting multiple sites or computers. Our data overlayed with that of the data from several different datasets on digital human and political rights violations implies a correlation between increases in state capabilities within the international environment and their subsequent use on domestic actors.

The data is imcomplete and unbalanced across the sample and requires additional collection and analysis over time. Due to the limited nature of our data I illustrate correlation only through the simple analysis of the common trends. However, the data we have amassed directly follows our hypothesized pattern.  Yet despite this simple anecdotal confirmation of our pattern we are at present unable to determine a causal relationship. Despite an inability to test causality the data indicate that the process of generating cyber losers as an externality of an international security dilemma in cyberspace is a real possibility warranting further research. 


I use the term cyber losers to describe the substate category of actors forced to compete with states in a quasi-anarchic environment. My primary focus is on human and democracy rights activists who use the Internet and associated technologies to advocate for a variety of causes ranging from democracy and rule of law, to minority and women's rights. These individuals are not losers because their causes are not worthy of attention; they are not losers because their messages are lacking in substance; they are losers because in a race of giants with deep pockets it is activists who are struggling to keep up. The promise of the Internet was a domain where individuals could globally interact; they could communicate and share ideas freely. However, as our data above indicate this space is becoming increasingly constrained. 

How constrained is the enviroment for Internet Freedom? Figure 6 (below) illustrates the relative spending on Internet Freedom in the U.S. Government at its highest point to current national spending on cyber security alone (Note this is not all tech spending, only cyber security spending). It is important also to remember that up until 2014 the United States was the only state spending any substantive amount on Internet Freedom related initiatives. 

Figure 6: Relative Spending on Internet Freedom and Cyber Security in the United States.


Although I have only attempted to summarize the broader findings of this paper, the implications are clear. As states increasingly use cyberspace to wield state power it is human and democracy rights activists operating in cyberspace that are increasingly going to suffer the adverse consequences. A domain once thought to herald free exhange of ideas and communications, capable of bringing about positive social change; cyberspace is now a complicated environment requiring individuals to be concious of the risks they are likely to encounter.