Virtual states in cyberspace increase in size and numbers

It is hard to think of any aspect of our lives that hasn’t been impacted by the Internet. This and other technologies have combined to support sustainable global advancement. Many believe the Internet and other communications technologies in general are the key components in driving social and geopolitical change.

However, one aspect of this change is a rapidly evolving threat that has military and government leaders concerned. Ever heard of a “virtual state” (sometimes referred to as a “phantom state”)? If you are not familiar with these amorphous entities, you may want to learn about them. The virtual state I am talking about is not the physics term, although there are some similarities. It is not an IT technology platform, although it does use similar architectures. It is a new term for an amorphous socio-political entity that exists entirely online and has no geographic ties.

A virtual state is defined as a nebulous community of people that self-identify and share in common one or more social, political and/or ideological convictions, ideas or values. This new entity tends to obscures the identities of its associates. Virtual states have very few barriers to member expression, although they do tend to focus the participants on a single or small set of topics. Once they establish their core cause, a course is established. Their efforts are to influence or force governments, nations or other identified entities to change or align with the virtual state’s social, political and/or ideological convictions and values. Virtual states are coordinated by administrators who are charged with orchestrating the establishment of the entity’s overall cause, which is based solely on the motivation of the membership.

Virtual states are increasing in size and numbers, with their participants now present in almost every region of the globe. As their ability to influence online and real-world policies increases, their activities increase, and that has many concerned. It is clear some virtual states have already leveraged soft power and influence via the Internet, and some have even organized or taken part in cyber protests and other disruptive activities. Others have even been more aggressive, organizing and launching cyberattacks. This has created many challenges for governments, militaries, law enforcement and businesses that find themselves being negatively impacted by the activities of a virtual state.

The existence of virtual states challenges many of our mental models, which seem to have a focus on geographic location that is defined by physical boundaries. As a result, several organizations have begun to research this topic. For example, cyber threats posed by virtual states are being investigated by Aparna Ilangovan as part of a potential three-year study at M.I.T. However, virtual states research is really in its infancy, and a thorough understanding is evolving slowly.

There are a number of questions that have recently been asked about virtual states:

  • Country or government. Is a country or government obligated to recognize this virtual entity?
  • Law enforcement. When a virtual state breaks international law, are all of the participants to be held accountable?
  • Military. When a virtual state uses its cyber power against a country or government, what is the proper military response?
  • Business. How do you deal with a virtual state that has launched efforts to influence others about some aspect of a business?

The long-term implications – both positive and negative – of the existence and evolution of virtual states are yet to be seen. At this point, there are more questions about virtual states than there are answers. In late September, a global management consulting firm’s government consulting practice leaders held a web conference on next-generation government services. I posed a question about the interaction with and influence of virtual states and all the implications of that growing movement. They decided not to address the question! Nevertheless, one thing is clear: virtual states represent the latest in the evolution of society in the connected world and they have created yet another cybersecurity challenge.

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