Cyber espionage

Definition & Introduction

Cyber espionage refers to the practice of leveraging Internet and digital technologies to secretly acquire intelligence or sensitive information to gain a political or economic advantage. Within the context of international affairs, cyber espionage is often used to advance the strategic objectives of nation-states, such as minimizing threats to national security or acquiring trade secrets.

The Summer 2023 issue of the Ethics & International Affairs journal includes a symposium organized by Juan Espindola analyzing the ethics of espionage based on Cécile Fabre’s book Spying through a Glass Darkly: The Ethics of Espionage and Counter-Intelligence. As Espindola notes, “Espionage remains part and parcel of international relations” and “the downing of a Chinese spy balloon within U.S. territory in early 2023 is a graphic and crude reminder” of that fact.

For more on the ethics of espionage, find articles and off-site resources exploring this topic below.

Facial Recognition in War Contexts: Mass Surveillance and Mass Atrocity

When is the use of facial recognition technology (FRT) justified? Is the use of FRT as a form of self-defense permissible and how, if at all, should it be used in cyber espionage operations during wartime?

Read the essay

Are countries justified in deploying facial recognition technology as a form of self-defense during wartime?

Cyber Espionage Ethics Discussion Questions

  1. Under what circumstances is it ethical to engage in cyber espionage?
  2. Should ethical guidelines be developed for cyber espionage? How, if at all, could those guidelines be effectively enforced?
  3. Does leveraging emerging technology in cyber espionage operations introduce novel ethical concerns as compared to traditional forms of espionage?
  4. Should state actors be held to different standards compared to individual hackers and cybercriminals?
  5. What are the pros and cons of using a utilitarian model (weighing the potential benefits and costs) to determine whether a cyber espionage operation is ethical?

Hacktivism 2.0, with Joseph Marks

Washington Post cybersecurity reporter Joseph Marks joined this episode of The Doorstep to discuss the similarities and differences between hacktivism, cyberwarfare, and ransomware. How are these tools being deployed in the Russia-Ukraine War and beyond?

Additional Off-site Resources

US warns of cyber-espionage campaign

Akshay Joshi (World Economic Forum) provides a round-up of the key cybersecurity stories over the summer of 2023 including a Microsoft report about a group called Volt Typhoon which is “developing capabilities . . . to disrupt U.S.-Asia communications.”


Cyber Espionage and Electronic Surveillance: Beyond the Media Coverage

Writing in "Emory Law Journal," legal scholar William C. Banks details how the proliferation of technology has impacted cyber espionage making this practice, and intelligence collection generally, a part of the national security apparatus of nearly every state.


Significant Cyber Incidents: A Timeline

The Center for Strategic and International Studies published a timeline recording significant cyber incidents dating back to 2006.