Why peacekeepers need digital tools to respond to cyber threats

(Credit: Keystone/EPA/Sascha Steinbach)

While digital tools become more ingrained into peacekeeping operations and mediators adapt to keep up with the digitisation of conflict settings, organisations must also be aware of the risks these technologies pose to their work. Francesca Bosco of the Geneva-based CyberPeace Institute explains how NGOs and peacebuilding organisations can face these new threats.

Digital tools are changing the peace building landscape, for better and for worse. Traditionally a low-tech field in which face-to-face interaction is key, the work of peacekeepers has typically relied on emotional intelligence, empathy and human creativity to find common ground between conflict parties.

However, as conflict is increasingly digitised, with adversaries now waging wars online using misinformation and social media, peace mediators need to keep up to speed and adapt their own operations.

A changing landscape

A number of digital technologies have become more common in the peacebuilding world in recent years, many of them powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI). Sentiment analysis software helps organisations get a better understanding of local populations in conflict contexts, indicating what online users think, feel or what could be potential drivers of conflict.

Mediators increasingly use social media and digital platforms to gage what users prioritise when it comes to peace processes, reaching more people than ever before through online consultations – as has been the case in the UN-mediated Libya peace process.

Geographic information systems (GIS) bring other advantages, allow mediators to monitor the respect of ceasefires and observe migration patterns during conflicts.

But with the uptake of AI-powered digital tools comes risk, explains Francesca Bosco, chief of staff at the CyberPeace Institute in Geneva, which has been looking into the impact of this digitisation on mediators and peace builders.

“Clearly sentiment analysis, social media platforms and AI-powered tools can be excellent tools that can help mediators, but at the same time they can clearly open the door to potential new vulnerabilities when in the wrong hands or misused,” she says.

Bosco, who heads the organisation’s foresight team, gives the example of the language limitations of many AI-powered tools, which are often unable to fully grasp the complexity of human languages. This could limit the effectiveness of sentiment analysis software and even misrepresent the interests of populations.

“Basing your decision on a result or an assessment related to sentiment analysis powered by AI might be extremely risky, especially in conflict areas,” she says.

These technologies also have limitations. Bosco notes the online consultation platforms used by mediators to gather the opinions and perspectives of a larger sample of populations to foster inclusivity in peace processes can only access those communities that have access to these technologies.

“This means you run the risk of basing your assumption on tools that are created with inclusivity in mind but are often by default cutting off a part of the population,” she says. “And then of course there’s the cybersecurity-related risk for the safety of these systems themselves, which can often be targeted by attacks.”

Some AI-enabled communication tools such as chatbots, which can be used by organisations to tailor their communication with specific target groups and provide information to individuals with a local context in mind, can be dangerous if in the wrong hands and potentially abused to spread disinformation.

Peacebuilders need digital toolkits

Since it was founded in 2019, a main focus of the CyberPeace Institute has been collecting data on and analysing cyberattacks on health care – a dangerous and complex threat that has evolved and increased in recent years. The Cyber Incident Tracer maps digital attacks on healthcare systems, from the spreading of disinformation to Covid-19 related espionage.

Now, the institute is beginning to expand its work into the NGO sector, including working with humanitarian and peacekeeping organisations to understand and better respond to cyber threats.

“Nowadays, mediators are increasingly reliant on digital tools for their daily activities, and this is clearly opening the door to potential new vulnerabilities,” says Bosco. “And so it's very important that we pay attention to how a secure digitisation process is empowering and should not put the people who are using those technologies in danger.”

This includes working with the United Nations peacekeeping office (UNDPPA) on capacity building initiatives for peacebuilders. The UNDPPA has developed a digital toolkit for mediators to help them understand both the opportunities and the risks posed by digital technologies.

“We’re now doing more of a deep dive into what are the security threats peacekeepers and organisations need to pay attention to, how to better protect yourself and how to potentially put preventative measures in place,” explains Bosco.

Another aspect of the institute’s work is the CyberPeace Builders initiative, launched by the institute this summer. The programme enables cybersecurity experts to volunteer with NGOs in critical civilian sectors, such as healthcare, water and sanitation, food and agriculture, energy, and information.

The CyberPeace Builders assist NGOs both to avoid cyber threats and respond to them if they occur so that they can continue their lifesaving work and protect the people they serve. Pre-incident assistance includes the provision of security assessments, awareness-raising and incident-response capability building, training NGOs so they know how to respond, and who to contact. Post-incident assistance revolves around security hardening – tools, techniques, and best practices to avoid future threats.

The programme aims to have 15 beneficiary NGOs and around 50 volunteer ‘CyberPeace Builders’ by the end of the year, and is recruiting regional advisers to ensure support is contextualised, particularly in developing countries.

Bosco explains that these CyberPeace Builders could work with peacekeeping and mediation organisations in the future to help them respond to digital threats and adapt their work.

“The intersection of technology and mediation is relatively new,” says Bosco. “Up until now, we've seen discussions and research initiatives growing to better understand the context, but we're not so advanced in deploying solutions. The nascent collaboration between the private sector, mediation organisations and organisations in the field is key. ”

“We need to invest more in capacity-building activities to be sure that peace mediators do not lag behind the digital revolution, that they have the knowledge and the tools to be resilient in this increasingly digitised context,” she continues. “When we think about the Agenda 2030 and specifically Goal 16 – to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies – we need to consider the vital role that peacebuilding and peace mediation play, and the interplay with current and emerging technologies they use to perform their role.”

“The process happening in the peace world is very similar to other fields, meaning that first comes the wave of digitisation and then comes the consideration of the challenges and opportunities. The good thing is that we are learning from other sectors relatively quickly,” she adds.

Playing catch-up

While the risks and benefits of new technologies in the peacekeeping world may not yet be fully understood, one thing is for certain – their influence is growing, and will continue to do so as organisations adapt their work to keep up with the changing nature of conflict.

But Bosco says that it's essential that everyone understand the threats posed by the ever-pervasive technological world to their everyday lives, not just the work of peacekeepers, NGOs or cybersecurity experts.

“Digital tools have created a sort of revolution even if we don't recognise it because we are in the midst of it,” she says. “Regardless of how old you are, you have to consider that our daily life is pervaded by technology – almost all the tools that we use are digital. Therefore, we need to stop thinking about security in terms of just measures and tools. It really needs to be a system approach, from integration into education curricula to the development of a multistakeholder ecosystem to support knowledge and awareness production, to collaborations to promote responsible development and use of technologies. This will ultimately better protect and enable our societies. We all have a role to play when it comes to securing our digital future.”

“Cybersecurity and cyber peace are talked about in professional and expert circles,” she continues. “But instead, considering how pervasive technology and different digital tools are, they should become a topic of regular conversations with friends and family. We need to think about cyber peace as a regular part of our lives.”