The ongoing exploit of emerging technologies to carry out cyberattacks is not just a matter concerning gangs of hackers and threat actors asking for ransoms, but also affects national security.
What if states employ these very means to get an economic advantage on their competitors in the international sphere?
Economic intelligence in its state-sponsored meaning can be referred as the activities meant to exploit economic and financial means to achieve strategic goals. This includes but does not limit to market interferences especially in the financial domain and infiltration in strategic enterprises and infrastructures to steal secrets and know-how.
Given the ever-growing economic interdependence among businesses and states and rivalries in research and markets penetration, the cyber domain well fits the delivery of these purposes and cyber economic intelligence operations result in a powerful lever for international competition that could eventually threaten national security.
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Economic intelligence: what it is?
A branch of standard intelligence practices of government agencies, economic intelligence can be defined as the gathering of information about how materials and resources are developed, produced, or managed as well as, to a lesser extent, the gathering of information that concerns strategy, operative plans, and the governance of an enterprise.
Economic intelligence does not equal to business intelligence. The goal of the former is obtaining secret or confidential information. Such gathering is intrinsically illegal. The means of information gathering are also illegal.
Cybersecurity & economic intelligence
Having defined the goals and the means of economic intelligence, what is the connection between economic intelligence and cyber threats?
Cyber threats can arguably be tools of economic intelligence.
Take the instance of spywares. Spyware is a malicious software that infects your computer and spies on you for your data. This program can record various personal information, from search and browsing histories to login credentials to credit card information. There are different types of spyware, but the activity they have in common is that they track your activities once they are installed.
Then, the CEO of a strategic business of country A can be exposed to the cyber espionage of country B by the means of similar software or technologies, which can reveal the strategy and the next moves of their organization.
Using technology can be very advantageous, indeed. It can spare the need of planting a human asset, the “agent”, in the strategic organization.
Be wary though. Overall, technology cannot completely replace the core human element of espionage, even in the cyber domain.
To infect the CEO’s devices, for instance, you may need a serial number or cellphone number you may only get from an insider. Alternatively, to compromise the enterprise network you may need someone working in the company that inserts a USB key in the server room.
Economic intelligence makes no exception in this context.
The cyber threat universe can be exploited by the intelligence agents in the international arena to cause severe damages to the economies of their competitors.
Given the complex interdependence between businesses and national security, compromising a strategic enterprise may equal to comprise key strategic assets of a country. By reflection, this means exploiting their national security.
Cyber threats should be also treated like threats to national security, then.