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When the Big Techs went to war

| News | Ciberseguridad

Vicente Moret analyses the consequences of the involvement of Western technology companies in the conflict in Ukraine and stresses that "the fifth domain, that of cyberspace, is an absolutely relevant part of an armed conflict provoked by an invasion" in El Confidencial

The tragic armed confrontation that we are seeing in Ukraine will have many geopolitical, economic, legal and social repercussions. This is a human tragedy unprecedented in Europe for more than 70 years, and its consequences will change many of the decision-making frameworks used until now.

One of the most striking developments in this conflict is the intense involvement of many western technology companies in support of the Ukrainian government, abandoning their usual positions of neutrality. This is an unprecedented contribution to the war effort, adding a new vector and a new dimension to the conflict. These companies, with their enormous technological capabilities, have overnight become major geopolitical players, doing things that were hitherto the monopoly of states, precisely because the new technological paradigm gives them enormous capabilities.

We are seeing Maxar providing real-time images of troop movements via satellite; Starlink providing the Ukrainian government with communications and thus command and control; Google protecting official websites against cyber-attacks; and Microsoft doing the same for the Ukrainian energy system. Even Airbnb is helping to find free accommodation for thousands of refugees. Other big tech companies are being very active in this support, but in a more discreet way. On the other hand, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, TikTok or Instagram are suspending the use of their services or the sale of their products in Russia, thus creating a situation of absolute exception in a society accustomed to enjoying these products and services. All this shows that technology has put in the hands of these companies a great power to shape dynamics and contribute to shaping events that will be historic. 

This active role in the confrontation is new, not so much because of the participation of private companies in armed conflicts, which is as old as conflicts themselves, but because of the intelligence, communications, logistics and digital security capabilities they provide. It is clear that this situation reaffirms the absolute relevance of the fifth domain, that of cyberspace, as part of an armed conflict provoked by an invasion. Alongside the decisive conventional armed confrontation, the relevance of operations aimed at disrupting financial, energy or government systems is highlighted. It visualises the total dependence on digital technology to keep societies in motion through the necessary operation of their essential services, which are entirely dependent on information networks and systems.

The consequences of this active participation are many. On the one hand, it highlights the importance that these companies already have in the global economy by dominating the digital economy, an area in which the supremacy of the companies of the United States. On the other hand, the possibility is established that, with these enormous capabilities, they can act in spaces, situations or situations in which governments themselves have limited lines of action due to various circumstances. The ability of these companies to act is not constrained by the framework of relations between states, international law or supranational organisations.

However, this new role for large companies has a flip side that needs to be considered. In a world that has become less flat than it was just a few months ago, global supply chains have become more complex to manage in a further sign of how we are moving from globalisation to localisation. Abandoning neutrality means giving up certain sources of supply and entire markets in which to sell products or services.

Moreover, the current situation of the formation of antagonistic blocs and the imposition of sanctions on commercial exchanges by states makes it necessary to be vigilant regarding the company's own operations, especially in the financial sector, so as not to be affected by this new context of sanctioning action by the authorities. In addition, the rapid decisions adopted by these companies have been based on ethical reasons, as in many cases they were taken prior to the adoption of decisions by states, which raises the question of whether this ethical standard will be applied to other countries or situations. Any gaps left unfilled will surely be exploited by Chinese companies.

Finally, this situation forces the boards of global companies to make extraordinarily complex and strategic decisions for the life of the company and, given their importance, for the economy of their own countries. The context has changed and will require alignments defined by international policy situations and decisions, which may entail a new type of risk. It is necessary to equip oneself with the analytical and decision-making skills needed to understand and deal with the new situation. We are navigating a new context in which the realist paradigm is taking over, moving from an Apollonian to a Dionysian stage. The ability to adapt to the new environment will, as always but now more than ever, make the difference between the success or failure of countries and companies.

You can read the article in El Confidencial.

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