Until recently, the threat of a global pandemic always seemed to feature as a footnote in discussions about nonconventional security threats. The way in which Covid-19 has changed our world demonstrates how such threats can surprise and overwhelm us, if we do not properly prepare our defenses.
With that in mind, last month, under the auspices of the British Embassy in Athens and the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), experts from the UK and Greece met – digitally – to examine two other key nonconventional security challenges facing our two countries: energy security and cybersecurity. We have also addressed serious organized crime under the same framework.
Our purpose is to share the best of UK and Greek expertise, drawing both on governmental perspectives and the analysis of nongovernment actors. Participants included officials from the UK and Greek governments, the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA), public agencies and other stakeholders, like the UK’s Royal United Services Institute.
Why nonconventional security? Because the repeated and constantly renewed challenges in the security sector show how vulnerable our democracies and our economies are to these threats. They also show how important a sense of safety and protection is for citizens, as an essential condition for their trust in democracy and their prosperity.
Nonconventional security challenges do not relent in times of global crisis. To prove the point, just last month, the Foreign Office’s Europe director, Sarah Taylor, made a digital visit to Greece and held a number of discussions on regional security tensions and instability. Simultaneously, our national security advisers have begun a direct dialogue, not only about the shared challenges we face but on how best to learn from one another’s frameworks and experiences, and how best to organize our defenses.
It is clearer than ever that our two countries face new, evolving challenges and threats. We both need to increase our energy sources, at the same time as we decarbonize, digitize our societies, and compete to attract global investment.
For Greece, the European Green Deal and the European digital strategy, the EU Cybersecurity Act and the NIS Directive are important drivers in that process. As Winston Churchill famously first observed, diversification of supply is a prerequisite for energy security. Greece’s role in the EastMed Pipeline project is a shining example of this principle.
For the UK, domestic ambition is matched by a responsibility to galvanize further international action. The UK was the first nation to write legally binding carbon reduction targets into national law and, in 2019, the first to embrace a pledge to be carbon neutral by 2050. COP26 (which will now take place in November 2021) represents the next great opportunity to drive global action on climate and energy. On cybersecurity, the UK’s place at the heart of Five Eyes, European, and wider global networks of cooperation facilitate a central role in identifying and countering new threats to the security of our democracies.
UK-Greek collaboration is flourishing. On digitization, behind the fantastically successful launch of Gov.gr lies months of expertise-sharing by UK and Greek teams, building on the lessons learnt since the launch of Gov.uk in 2012. A single platform to access public services represents the foundation of a 21st century society. Its security is paramount.
But as the delivery of services, and economic activity across each sector, become even “smarter,” so do those wishing to undermine our security, prosperity, and way of life. Hostile states and non-state actors like hackers, terrorists and state proxies are active, and increasingly skillful and flexible.
During the period of the restrictive measures imposed to combat Covid-19, the instances of cyber-criminality and number of cyberattacks increased significantly, an indication of the readiness of cyber-criminals to adapt and a call for organized states to remain vigilant. Despite the closing of borders, lockdowns and social distancing measures, threat assessments indicate that this pandemic is encouraging organized criminals to put old skills to new use. Organized crime groups (OCGs) have demonstrated their flexibility in diversifying their activities and reviewing their business models while also extending their reach into the legitimate economy.
For example, criminal groups have moved into selling fake Covid-19 testing kits, respirators, and fake paracetamol and are exploiting the digital space by advertising their services and engaging in cybercrime fraud. Those previously involved in the facilitation of migrants by air, have adapted to the Covid-related aviation restrictions by using alternative means of movement, namely small boats. One thing is for certain – OCGs will not stop. The real impact of this pandemic on crime will take time to fully unfold.
We must protect every domain, from human security to the digital economy, not least in the crucial areas of cyber, maritime, energy and space security. The list is long: disinformation, hybrid warfare, online radicalization and recruitment of terrorists, money laundering, terrorism financing, and the evolving trends of cyber-criminality (i.e. child sexual exploitation, frauds, hacking etc) all present challenges.
The need to collaborate is paramount. By building bridges between our experts we can respond far more effectively. For example, through pooling our knowledge of threats, we could jointly develop defenses against cyberattacks. These could disable critical national infrastructure like ports, railways, power stations and distribution networks. And we can achieve more through multilateral institutions like NATO, Europol, Interpol, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Working together on a global level is essential to effectively combating nonconventional threats.
Our webinars gave us reason to be confident. Our two countries, acting together with like-minded partners and multilateral institutions, have the determination and capabilities to defend our common interests. We have world-leading expertise and the commitment to democratic freedoms and rights necessary to address these threats. But we can never be complacent. The threats are growing and constantly changing; so reviewing and enhancing our defenses needs to be a continual project.
It is an ideal time for us to be working in this area, together. The UK and Greece are reforging our friendship. Britain has left the EU, but our two countries have a long history of working closely together and share a commitment to deepen and widen our cooperation even further in the future. Our work last month with ELIAMEP highlighted nonconventional security as one of the most opportune fields upon which we can write the next chapter of our partnership.
Kate Smith CMG is the UK ambassador to Greece and George Pagoulatos is professor of European politics and economy at the Athens University of Economics and Business, visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges, and director general of ELIAMEP.