Grey Zone Conflicts in Cyber Domain: Nonlocality of Political Reality in the World of “Hyperobjects”

Grey Zone Conflicts in Cyber Domain: Nonlocality of Political Reality in the World of “Hyperobjects”

Muhammed Can (University of Minho, Portugal)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9715-5.ch018


In recent years, controversial concepts like post-truth, truth decay, political technology, and blurred nature of reality have become more complex around the world. Perhaps, a most important manifestation of these concepts could be discerned in grey zone conflicts. Confrontations in the grey zone are regarded neither peace nor war by the major powers. Russia, China, and Iran constantly use grey zone tools, notably disinformation campaigns, influence operations in social media through troll farms, information warfare, and cyber-attacks to sustain the balance of power/threat with Western countries. What makes these conflicts very significant is that they are cheaper and less risky for aggressor states given the disastrous consequences of the total wars. Furthermore, these malicious activities have unique impacts on political realities thanks to the common usage of social media and cyberspace. Thereby, this article argues the cyber frontier of grey zone conflicts and its possible effects to reality through the concept/analogy of hyperobjectivity and nonlocality.
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Living in the age of advanced technologies comes with a price: Witnessing exponential growth in artificial intelligence, software-hardware systems and the cyber domain has rendered problems more ambiguous. The vulnerabilities of states, societies and individuals have become more evident thanks to the advent of these technologies. One of the most challenging manifestations can be seen in the grey zone conflicts which state and non-state actors constantly mobilize in order to show their strength. Given the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and deterrence among great powers, it is roughly impossible to expect great powers to dare overt sabre-rattling, which would eventually lead to total chaos throughout the world. Therefore, grey zone conflicts or political warfare has become both a lesser evil and low-cost option for rival states. As Mazarr puts it, grey zone conflicts consist of “salami-slicing strategies, fortified with a range of emerging area or unconventional techniques from cyberattacks to information campaigns to energy diplomacy” (2015, p.2).

Russia’s influence operations and alleged interference in the US elections in 2016, Chinese efforts to shift status quo in the South China Sea, Iran’s way of using grey zone tactics via proxies in its immediate vicinity and the pervasive utilization of unconventional tactics by terrorist organizations, notably by the so-called ‘ISIS’, make grey zone conflicts more significant not only for states but also for laypeople, whose lives are affected by these conflicts along a spectrum of severity. These impacts can be easily discerned in the election process, the perception of reality, diplomatic bargains, unexpected interference by major powers (annexation of Crimea through ‘little green men’) and information warfare.

It is evident that the cyber domain is a major part of grey zone conflicts. Cyberattacks on the political campaign of Emmanuel Macron, the Russian-backed hackers Cozy Bear and their ‘Lisa case’ attacks in Germany, the cyber conflict between Russia and Estonia, and Russian influence campaigns in Sweden, Ukraine and Georgia are among the most recent examples of grey zone conflicts in the cyber domain. In the same vein, it is also explicit that these confrontations between rival states have impacted the nature of political realities, which have rendered merely ‘virtual’ the function of conventional democratic practices – particularly in authoritarian regimes – just as occurred in the post-Soviet landscape (Wilson, 2005).

Apart from being in the midst of these conflicts, political realities have become more ambiguous, which adversely affects states, non-state groups and societies. Moreover, these political realities that are particularly manufactured in the cyber domain have become a nonlocal ‘hyperobject’, which simply refers to “genuine nonhuman objects that are not simply the products of a human gaze” (Morton, 2015, p.199). In his seminal book, Morton coined the term ‘hyperobject’ via object-oriented ontology. For him, hyperobjects represent the coexistence of humans and objects and simply correspond to “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (Morton, 2015, p.1). Therefore, a hyperobject might be the biosphere, a black hole, uranium or plutonium, or it might be “the very long-lasting product of direct human manufacture”, all of which have a plethora of features in common (Ibid). Firstly, hyperobjects are vicious, meaning that “they stick to beings that are involved with them” (Ibid). Secondly, hyperobjects pervade high-dimensional space, and their effects can be found ‘interobjectively’ in a space that includes interdependence between the “aesthetic properties of objects”. Finally, they are nonlocal, meaning that “they involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to” (Ibid).

Therefore, this chapter primarily seeks to reach possible answers regarding how the cyber domain of grey zone conflicts affects the political realities on the frontlines. It also attempts to reach an appropriate conclusion to determine possible regulations and existing conventions to counter grey zone conflicts in the cyber domain. Finally, it investigates the reality itself – and its manipulative nature – by putting ‘hyperobjectivity’ at the centre in the context of political reality.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Ontological Approach to Cyberspace: It basically assesses cyberspace as a metaphysical laboratory that combines art and philosophy of things, machines and different domains, although this philosophical approach is not new.

Object-Oriented Ontology: Object-oriented ontology (OOO) is a school of thought which argues that objects exist independently of human understanding and perception. The term was coined by the philosopher Graham Harman. It is also designated in the existing literature as ‘speculative realism’, which criticises the reductionism of Kantian philosophy.

Grey Zone Threats: These are the threats that comprise a full spectrum of means and tools used by aggressor states to subvert their rivals’ plans and strategies. These kinds of threats are perceived as affordable, less risky and flexible by the aggressor states.

Information Operations: Information operations are the part of political warfare/grey zone conflicts that occur in an asymmetrical way via social and conventional media, state organisations and military means to weaken the morale and psychology of enemy states.

Cyber Sovereignty: This is a phrase commonly used in the field of internet governance to define the will of states to exercise and sustain control over the Internet domain within their own borders, including political, economic, cultural and technological activities. However, it is not clear how to apply this sovereignty concept to current international relations and international laws.

The Law of Armed Conflict: The Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), also known as the International Humanitarian Law, is a body of international law which regulates the behaviours of actors during armed conflict by ordering balance between military necessity and humanity. It comprises the Geneva Conventions, Hague Conventions and customary laws. It also limits the targeted attacks of combating parties in order to protect civilians and avoid total disaster.

Cyberwarfare: Cyberwarfare is an overt or covert action of states, non-state actors or state-backed attackers that includes various tactics and techniques, notably advanced persistent threats, phishing tactics, viruses like Stuxnet, botnets, Trojan horses, zombies, Metasploit, SQL attacks, Rootkit, Nessus, pharming, Wireshark and buffer overflows to target infrastructure, software systems, and governmental institutions of different parties.

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