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Humanitarian sector must be prepared for cyberattack threat

A person works at a computer during the 10th International Cybersecurity Forum in Lille, France. (AFP file photo)
A person works at a computer during the 10th International Cybersecurity Forum in Lille, France. (AFP file photo)
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22 Jan 2024 04:01:36 GMT9
22 Jan 2024 04:01:36 GMT9

The growing sophistication of cyberwarfare has resulted in a notable escalation in recent years. Cyberattacks have evolved beyond mere disruptions of digital systems and now have the potential to cause real-world harm with devastating consequences. This may be a paradigm shift in the landscape of modern conflict. As our reliance on digital technologies continues to expand across various sectors, so does the potential for cyber threats and attacks.

Last month, a hacking group known as “Gonjeshke Darande” (Predatory Sparrow) claimed responsibility for a cyberattack that knocked out the majority of gas stations across Iran, leading to long queues. Almost 70 percent of the country’s gas stations experienced service disruptions, according to Iranian state TV. The disruption was attributed to a “software problem” and the public was advised against rushing to those stations that were still operational.

Already this year, the global landscape has been marred by a series of more than 15 major cyberattacks spanning diverse sectors and affecting numerous countries. These incidents underscore the pervasive and evolving nature of cyber threats in our interconnected world. From critical infrastructure to financial institutions, government entities to private enterprises, the targets have been varied, highlighting the indiscriminate reach of malicious actors in the digital realm.

Nation states, nonstate actors and even individuals are increasingly leveraging advanced cyber capabilities in order to achieve financial, political and strategic objectives.

The humanitarian challenges stemming from cyberattacks have unfortunately emerged as a pressing concern, as hospitals, power grids, financial institutions and critical infrastructure are no longer immune to the reach of such adversaries. As the world becomes increasingly reliant on technology for essential services, communication and commerce, the vulnerabilities exposed by malicious cyber activities pose profound threats to humanity’s well-being.

This is why it is important to look at the intricate web of humanitarian challenges associated with cyberattacks by delving into the implications for individuals, communities and global organizations and ways to tackle this issue.

First of all, it is critical to point out that the infrastructure that is essential for the functioning of societies has increasingly become a target — and is susceptible — to cyber threats. The interconnectivity of systems controlling energy, water supply, transport and healthcare leaves these sectors vulnerable to malicious cyber activities.

Disruptions in these areas can have cascading effects, jeopardizing the delivery of vital services and posing significant challenges for humanitarian organizations responding to crises.

As humanitarian organizations collect and store vast amounts of sensitive data, the risk of data breaches looms large.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

More fundamentally, the healthcare sector, a core pillar of humanitarian efforts, has increasingly become a prime target for cyberattacks. Ransomware attacks on hospitals have the potential to disrupt patient care, compromise sensitive medical records and even endanger lives. Unfortunately, the humanitarian consequences are dire in such cases because, if the integrity of medical services is compromised, vulnerable populations would be left without access to critical healthcare during times of need.

Cyberattacks can also compromise emergency response systems. Attacks can disrupt communication channels, hinder logistics and compromise the efficiency of relief efforts. This not only endangers lives but also exacerbates the challenges faced by communities already grappling with the aftermath of disasters. Humanitarian crises, whether caused by natural disasters or conflicts, demand swift, immediate and coordinated emergency responses.
It is also critical to focus on vulnerable and marginalized communities, as cyberattacks disproportionately affect these communities, exacerbating existing inequalities. Access to essential services, financial systems and communications platforms is critical for marginalized populations and any disruption in these areas further marginalizes and isolates them.

In addition, as humanitarian organizations collect and store vast amounts of sensitive data to help them deliver aid effectively, the risk of data breaches looms large. It is evident that safeguarding the confidentiality of personal information is paramount for maintaining the integrity of humanitarian efforts. But the problem is that cyberattacks that compromise the privacy of affected populations can erode trust and deter individuals from seeking assistance.

One of the key challenges in tackling cyberattacks is related to the issue of accountability. It is often difficult to identify the perpetrators of cyberattacks with certainty. This lack of clear attribution can hinder efforts to hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions. This ambiguity also undermines the potential for legal recourse and international cooperation in addressing cyber threats with a humanitarian impact.

This is why it is critical for humanitarian organizations to enhance their cybersecurity capabilities and resilience. Capacity-building initiatives ought to concentrate on training personnel, implementing robust cybersecurity measures and developing contingency plans to respond effectively in the event of a cyberattack.

Proactive investment in cybersecurity infrastructure is also crucial for mitigating the impact of cyber threats on humanitarian operations.

In addition, efficiently addressing the humanitarian challenges of cyberattacks requires a collaborative approach. Strengthening international cooperation on cybersecurity and fostering diplomacy to establish norms and regulations are essential. The establishment of clear guidelines and frameworks can contribute to a more secure cyberspace, reducing the potential for humanitarian crises resulting from malicious cyber activities.

In a nutshell, the humanitarian challenges of cyberwarfare underscore their impact on people’s well-being. The evolving nature of cyber threats poses multifaceted risks to critical infrastructure, healthcare, emergency response systems and marginalized communities. This underscores the urgent need for international cooperation — including on fortifying defenses and enhancing resilience.

Only through concerted efforts to fortify cybersecurity measures and foster a global understanding of the humanitarian consequences of cyber threats can we navigate the complex terrain of the digital age, while ensuring the protection and well-being of individuals and communities worldwide.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. X: @Dr_Rafizadeh

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