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US must step up against 'cyber-enabled economic warfare,' think tank urges

The U.S. must do more to combat its digital adversaries as they employ cyber-enabled economic warfare tactics to boost their own political or military power, according to a report out today from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

While countering Russia, China, North Korea and Iran requires different tactics depending on the country, there are a number of overarching steps Washington could take, the right-leaning foreign policy think tank argues. 

Specifically, the U.S. should improve focus within the intelligence community on the threat; strengthen partnerships with the private sector to gird against such tactics; develop economic contingency plans; expand the use of economic statecraft; and improve its ability to disrupt the campaigns of adversaries, including going after their computer networks.

Samantha Ravich, chair of FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation, specifically called on the clandestine community to do a lot more to “understand the canary in the coal mine” before schemes are carried out against the U.S.

“If these actors are going to come after us, the strongest country in the world, most likely they're going to perfect their cyber-enabled economic warfare tools against their near adversaries,” she said during a press call earlier this week.

“If you look at it as campaign plans from each of these actors, see what they're doing against their other adversaries, we… probably have a better insight into when they would use these tactics and how they would use these tactics.”

In addition to overarching policy recommendations, the think tank’s report also offers country-specific suggestions for addressing each of the four foreign countries.

Ravich noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “pre-positioned” to employ tactics undermining adversaries across Europe economically and could if the war on Ukraine continues to go badly for the Kremlin.

Putin “absolutely understands how to divide adversaries to get more of what he wants," she said. "Cyber-enabled economic warfare attacks here on the U.S. homeland [are] not out of the question as Putin gets pushed further and further into a corner, has less and less tools and abilities available to him.”

Annie Fixler, the deputy chief of FDD’s cyber hub, said that, thus far, observers haven’t noticed the rogue nation-states coordinating their cyber-enabled economic warfare efforts.

“We aren't seeing the trade or sale of cyber tools the way we see Iran, for example, selling drones to Russia to use in Ukraine,” she said.

“But what we can see, however, is a stated desire to, for example, adopt each other's censorship and surveillance tools and strategies,” according to Fixler.  “We see coordination or at least a unity of purpose around distorting internet norms and promoting sovereign internet. We see amplification of disinformation messaging, and we see adversaries learning from each other's successes. So while we may not see traditional weapons sales, the maturation of the cyber capabilities of one adversary makes all of the adversaries that much more dangerous.”

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Martin Matishak

Martin Matishak

is the senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. Prior to joining Recorded Future News in 2021, he spent more than five years at Politico, where he covered digital and national security developments across Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. He previously was a reporter at The Hill, National Journal Group and Inside Washington Publishers.