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State-sponsored economic cyber-espionage for commercial purposes: tackling an invisible but persistent risk to prosperity

By Gatra Priyandita, Bart Hogeveen and Ben Stevens

As part of a multi-year capacity building project supporting governments in the Indo-Pacific with defending their economic against the risk of cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, ASPI analysed public records to determine the effects, the actual scale, severity and spread of current incidents of cyberespionage affecting and targeting commercial entities.

In 2015, the leaders agreed that ‘no country should conduct or support ICT-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information, with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors.’

Our analyses suggests that the threat of state-sponsored economic cyberespionage is more significant than ever, with countries industrialising their cyberespionage efforts to target commercial firms and universities at a grander scale; and more of these targeted industries and universities are based in emerging economies.

“Strategic competition has spilled into the economic and technological domains and states have become more comfortable and capable using offensive cyber capabilities. Our analysis shows that the state practice of economic cyber-espionage appears to have resurged to pre-2015 levels and tripled in raw numbers.”

In this light, we issued a Briefing Note on 15 November 2022 recommending that the G20 members recognise that state-sponsored ICT-enabled theft of IP remains a key concern for international cooperation and encouraging them to reaffirm their commitment made in 2015 to refrain from economic cyber-espionage for commercial purposes. 

This latest Policy Brief, State-sponsored economic cyber-espionage for commercial purposes: tackling an invisible but persistent risk to prosperity, further suggests that governments should raise awareness by better assessing and sharing information about the impact of IP theft on their nations’ economies in terms of financial costs, jobs and competitiveness. Cybersecurity and intelligence authorities should invest in better understanding the extent of state sponsored economic cyber-espionage on their territories.

On the international front, the G20 and relevant UN committees should continue addressing the issue and emphasising countries’ responsibilities not to allow the attacks to be launched from their territories. 

The G20 should encourage members to reaffirm their 2015 commitments and consider establishing a cross-sectoral working group to develop concrete guidance for the operationalisation and implementation of the 2015 agreement while assessing the scale and impact of cyber-enabled IP theft.