Koen Gijsbers’s Seminar on the Role of Cyber in the Military Domain: Summary and Student Thoughts

By: Natalie de Beer

Picture Credits: Tashiya de Mel

On November 4th, the JASON Institute held its 2023 annual conference. This year’s theme was Unveiling Vulnerabilities: Exploring the Changing Security Climate. Among many of the distinguished security experts who spoke at the conference was Koen Gijsbers, the former CIO of the Dutch Ministry of Defence and General Manager of NATO’s IT Department. In his seminar, Gijsbers educated students on the development of cyber in the military domain and the global implications for command-and-control structures. He traced cyber advancements, ranging from the use of radio and cryptography during World War II to modern-day ransomware and wiperware attacks.

Gijsbers highlighted the significance of many modern cyber threats to governments, organisations, and individuals today. One such threat emerges from the fact that many networks and weapon systems are built using foreign components that make the systems vulnerable to attack; foreign actors may already have access to certain systems without the knowledge of the nations and organisations that use them, and may conduct rapid, full-spectrum attacks. In light of this threat and other security risks, Gijsbers stressed that cyberwarfare can lead to mass disruptions in different levels and sectors of society. As the use of cyber is rapidly developing, he pointed to the need for transnational cooperation, civil engagement, and built-in resilience mechanisms. Although cyber attacks pose a significant threat, they are difficult to sustain as information technology can rebuild and groups can work together to implement necessary precautions and responses.

Among many members of the diverse audience who attended the JASON conference were university students who had insightful comments in response to Gijsbers’s seminar. Louise Lewenhaupt, a security student at Leiden University, commented, “In my opinion, the conference highlighted an often overlooked dimension of security that moved beyond focusing on physical threats. Gijsbers’s lecture has specifically changed the way I view the current security climate, and the threats that are most pressing in today’s day and age. I am a bit more apprehensive about the potential of cyber warfare; I now further recognize the need to focus on implementing protective and progressive measures aimed at utilising cyber’s potential and preventing its harmful consequences.’’ When asked what key points of knowledge and information she hoped to take with her after the seminar, Lewenhaupt stated, “I am currently pursuing a career as a risk analyst, and the lecture has given me a valuable perspective on the influence of cyber in the domains I will work in. I have learned that cyber is not an isolated field or threat, but one that will influence all of us in many different ways.”

Kristin Maree, a political science student at the University of Amsterdam, noted that Gijsbers’s concluding remark that quantum is coming, and we are not ready was most compelling to her. Maree explained that, “the seminar showed me how rapidly cyber is changing, and how the world must adjust to new developments in the field. Given Gijsbers’s evident expertise in the domain, I am motivated by his warning and inspired to investigate exactly what quantum is and how it may transform society.”

Sophie Ferguson, an international law student at the University of Amsterdam, further expressed that the information given in the seminar intersected with her studies in unexpected ways. Ferguson stated that, “Gijsbers’s point on the implication of cyber for modern warfare has shown me how cyber has and will continue to influence civil actors and organisations. Not only does cyber have vast implications for protecting civilians, but civilian involvement is essential for effective response to cyber development. Given my interest in law, I am curious to see how international law will adjust to and be violated by continued advancement. It is an exciting time, but one where attention will need to be given to combat the consequences of unjust use of cyber.”

As demonstrated by the perspectives of the attending students, Gijsbers’s seminar provided pressing insights that generated questions, concerns, and interest regarding the use of cyber in society today. The seminar complimented other seminars related to vulnerabilities in the modern era, giving attendees a more holistic understanding of the changing security climate. As the conference demonstrated, continued attention and exploration of the security field will be necessary in our rapidly changing world.

This article complements the seminar “Bridging the Future: The Role of Cyber in the Military Domain”, which took place during the annual JASON conference on November 4th, 2023.

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