The cyber gap between the US and its adversaries is only expected to narrow as nation-states and hacktivists invest more time and money learning how to spy on, steal from, and destroy digital systems.
"The United States is the unquestioned world leader in cyber-offensive capabilities," geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer said in a note provided to Business Insider.
"But the gap is closing quickly, both with traditional competitors (Russia, China), far more budget-constrained rogue states (Iran, North Korea, Syria), and even non-state actors (Anonymous and, increasingly, ISIS and al-Qaeda)."
As foreign actors continue to develop and leverage technological capabilities, the coercive cybertools the US has been using to achieve its strategic goals will be used by other actors in a way not seen previously.
Bremmer notes that unlike trends with building traditional military forces, US adversaries are now catching up so quickly that the US is often caught off guard by their cyber advancements.
"Proliferation [of cyber technology] is occurring exponentially faster [than traditional military technology], meaning that response strategies are reactive and underdeveloped," Bremmer said. "That in turn leads to strategic surprise from the United States when the cyber capabilities of enemies are deployed."
This year, President Obama signed an executive order allowing the US to sanction overseas cybercriminals who attempt to attack critical infrastructure, steal intellectual property, benefit from that stolen property, or disrupt major computer networks
But as Bremmer explained, sanctions won't stop the most sophisticated players such as Russia, China, and Iran.
Iran is quickly increasing its cyber prowess: Bremmer notes that Tehran successfully reverse-engineered the powerful Stuxnet worm created by the NSA and Israel before turning "it into their own cyber-weapons to destroy Saudi Aramco's servers and nearly stop the kingdom's oil production."
Basically, America's foes are learning from the US — and Washington's previous aggression means that cyber adversaries aren't holding back.
"America's rapid deployment and strong tactical advantage have meant little interest to share, constrain use, or otherwise develop international regimes to govern the field," Bremmer noted.
And as the trend continues, the chances of a catastrophic event increase.
"For now," Bremmer said, "if there's a black swan event that proves maximally geopolitically disruptive in the near-term, an unprecedented-scale cyberattack from Russia or a non-state actor would be top of my list."
As Ray Boisvert, a veteran of Canada's intelligence services, told the Infiltrate offensive hacker conference: If 2014 was the year of the hack, 2015 will be the year of destruction.
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