Nick Nelson foresees a much more complex security environment in 2030.
Globalisation and innovations in science and technology will give al-Qaeda-type groups – so-called ‘non-state actors’ – and rogue states the means to inflict far greater damage at less effort and expense.
Part of the threat is digital, encompassing sabotage and the theft of information, money and identity.
In 2010 a sophisticated computer worm called Stuxnet was targeted at damaging Iran’s uranium enrichment infrastructure. Nelson sees it as the forerunner of attacks to come.
“In the next 20 years cyber-attacks will increase in both number and severity,” says Nelson. “New, highly sophisticated computer worms will be developed and released, causing enormous economic damage and, on occasion, physically damaging critical infrastructure, with consequent loss of life.”
The difficulty of identifying a culprit makes this sort of threat especially challenging. Stuxnet has been alleged to have been the product of a US-Israeli intelligence operation, but it is difficult to be certain.
“This makes cyber-attacks an incredibly difficult threat to deter or defeat at the same time as making them very appealing to criminals and terrorists,” says Nelson.
He also worries about the speed with which the tools and techniques of genetic engineering and advanced chemistry are becoming accessible. Computer hacking now has its analogue in ‘biohacking’.
Although this brings to mind nightmare scenarios of bio-engineered plagues and potent neurotoxins targeted at the general population, Nelson is more immediately worried about the use of biologically engineered agents as economic weapons, perhaps, in the case of New Zealand, directed at the agricultural and horticultural sectors.
Traditional approaches will not be able to counter threats such as these, says Nelson. “We will need an intelligence-based security approach that collects, analyses, integrates and operationalises information, allowing us to neutralise threats before they materialise, because, once they have, it is probably too late.”