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Cyber Peace and the UN SDGs

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires cyber peace and capacity building for cyber resilient development.

If we think about the future, most of us would hope to live in a peaceful and inclusive society where human beings and communities thrive, and our rights are fully respected. 

The endeavor to make such a vision a reality, was the rationale behind the United Nations  Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) launched in 2015. These interconnected targets address key issues, such as poverty, hunger and inequality, with the aim of building a better world, and a better life for all, by 2030.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights the importance of information and communication technologies (ICT) and global interconnectedness as powerful enablers of growth, to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies. 

Each SDG includes a digital component, although some are more digitally-focused than others. Reference to ICTs can be found explicitly as a target under SDG 9 – “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation”, and  it is also referenced in the targets related to climate change (SDGs 13, 14 and 15), gender equality and empowerment of women and girls (SDG 5), economic growth (SDG 8), education (SDG 4) and health (SDG 3). Several studies and initiatives have also highlighted the direct impact of transformative technologies on the SDGs, from developments such as the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI).

Digitalization and SDGs: challenges to critical sectors and actors

Digital transformation is changing critical sectors such as healthcare, finance and education: they all benefit from digital technology, to scale the delivery of services and gain efficiencies. This is evidenced through digital solutions in healthcare to provide people with access to care and services (SDG 3), to increased internet access enabling more people to improve their opportunity to benefit from a stable income (SDG8), to strengthened access to financial services and financial inclusion (SDG10), to AI and machine learning to improve energy efficiency and reduce costs (SDG7).

Digitalization is also a key enabler for the critical organizations that are directly contributing to the realization of the SDGs by assisting and protecting people throughout the world: development and humanitarian non governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations (IOs).

IOs and NGOs play a critical role in the delivery of essential services. Their work in situations of armed conflict, disaster, and other complex emergencies to deliver assistance and protection to vulnerable populations is essential to saving lives and supporting communities and their resilience. Technology is now vital to reach and engage with beneficiaries, deliver and scale programs as well as to manage the types, volumes and processing of data collected electronically.

While it is recognized that digitalization produces many positive outcomes, it also creates an environment in which critical infrastructure, and actors, like NGOs and by extension the individuals and communities they seek to assist and protect, become increasingly vulnerable to disruption to their operations, from different forms of cyberattacks or the use of surveillance technologies.

Malicious actors are already targeting critical infrastructure, like hospitals, clinics and labs, as well as humanitarian NGOs, with devastating cyberattacks in efforts to seek ransom payments, exfiltrate data and/or disrupt the ability to operate, putting not only data at risk, but also human lives.

WannaCry and NotPetya affected government institutions and businesses around the world, disrupting myriad systems, including banking, education, energy, health, manufacturing, telecommunications, and transportation, all of which hold special significance to the achievement of the SDGs, and, ultimately, benefit people. 

Continued cyberattacks will exacerbate conflicts and erode trust in national and international institutions. Where cyberattacks grow in scale and frequency, the societal structures needed to foster the SDGs will be the victims. This, in turn, will undermine progress towards all goals, and notably SDG 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Cyber “insecurity” is impacting at the same time human security, economic stability and development potential more broadly. 

The cybersecurity challenge to reach the goals of the SDGs is particularly relevant. While the development community continues to invest to achieve the SDGs by digitizing societies and building “smart” infrastructures, there is often an underestimation of the cyber risks and threats that come with increased use of ICTs and digitalization, and/or these risks are not fully addressed as a systemic challenge. Cyber insecurity can challenge or even unwind progress made.

Cyberpeace and the SDGs

Recognising these challenges, the CyberPeace Institute is working to ensure that increased digitization and digitalization all over the world can successfully contribute to the realization of the 2030 goals. In building the conditions for cyberpeace, we work with communities to safeguard and strengthen the resilience of both critical infrastructure and NGOs providing populations with vital services. Additionally, we support development and NGOs to strengthen their cyber capabilities to be better protected and better equipped to respond to cyber threats.

The healthcare sector has been targeted by malicious actors. Criminals have targeted organizations from hospitals to vaccine research centers, with a complete disregard for the impact on public health and safety and the harm they might cause to people. Preventing such attacks will help achieve SDG 3, Good Health and Well-Being.

Tools and analyses such as the Cyber Incident Tracer #HEALTH, developed by the CyberPeace Institute, helps bridge the information gap about cyberattacks on the healthcare sector and their impact on people, to develop appropriate policies and capacity building initiatives. 

NGOs are reliant on digital tools and are often the target of malicious actors to disrupt their activities yet they do not always have the resources to invest in cybersecurity. Their work often makes them a target for malicious actors to disrupt their activities. NGOs often have to interrupt and even scale back their work after an attack, affecting beneficiaries’ lives and livelihoods. The CyberPeace Institute launched a first of its kind program, the CyberPeace Builders, to support such organizations to increase their cyber resilience and to ensure their work towards the 2030 vision remains undisrupted by cyber threats. This program contributes to SDG 17 to create effective partnerships and SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions – by safeguarding and strengthening the resilience of NGOs and the humanitarian sector.

A collaborative process

The CyberPeace Institute recognizes that creating cyberpeace and fulfilling the SDGs are both challenges that no single organization or even stakeholder group can accomplish alone. Instead, effective multi-stakeholder cooperation, coordination, and partnerships are required to amplify and implement positive contributions to achieve the SDGs and build the foundations necessary for a cyberspace at peace for everyone, everywhere. Recognizing these challenges, the CyberPeace Institute works with others particularly in critical sectors to contribute to achieving the SDG goals of 2030.  We are convinced that cyberpeace is central to the achievement of the SDGs.

© Copyright 2022: The concepts and information contained in this document are the property of the CyberPeace Institute, an independent non-governmental organization headquartered in Geneva, unless indicated otherwise from time to time throughout the document. This document may be reproduced, in whole or in part, provided that the CyberPeace Institute is referenced as author and copyright holder.

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