Sparking Connections: My Time at MozFest 2021

One of the hardest challenges for activists is to create a sense of urgency around the issues they champion. From previous experiences, I believe that no matter how much education we dispense about an issue, a story that humanizes the problem and connects a sense of humanity to it, will ultimately have the biggest impact. The pursuit of digital peace is no different.

For this year’s MozFest, I delivered a workshop on a topic that resonates with me: digital peace—the idea that we must stop weaponizing the Internet and demand our governments to end cyberwarfare. As someone who feels like my identity is shared between the online and offline worlds, I firmly believe the Internet is a source of empowerment that needs to be protected. During the workshop, I had the opportunity to raise awareness about state-sponsored cyberattacks and create a space for the attendees to thoughtfully bring their perspectives and solutions around addressing the threat to the table.

Predictably, awareness proved to be a real issue. First, there’s a distinction between cybercrime and cyberwarfare. While there are nuanced differences, the crux of it comes down to two things: intent and actor. Cybercrime is a malicious act carried out by cybercriminals to make money—not always, but most of the time. Think ransomware that locks your data until you make a sketchy bitcoin payment. On the other hand, cyberwarfare is a series of attempts made by state-backed hackers to access or disrupt vital computer systems of governments, individuals, or organizations considered political enemies or rivals. Directed and funded by their governments, these hackers can target elections, critical infrastructure, foreign agencies, NGOs, and political dissidents. All of which fits under the umbrella of cyberwarfare and often impacts innocent civilians.

While many of the workshop participants were aware of cyberattacks, few could name a specific state-sponsored cyberattack or what it entailed. People know there’s a threat—they just don’t fully understand what it is. Digital Peace Now’s Citizens on Cyberattacks report revealed 52% of those polled across six different countries (the United States, India, South Africa, Malaysia, Mexico, and France) were aware that their own governments launch cyberattacks on other countries semi-regularly! But the real impact of these attacks still remains a mystery to most of the population.

Having briefly discussed the WannaCry, Sony, Stuxnet, and SolarWinds attacks, the issue started to feel larger than ourselves. Even though these attacks impacted hospitals, banks, power grids, and even the entertainment industry, state-sponsored cyberattacks seemed devoid of the human element—another political problem for world leaders to solve. Where was the relatable human story? One that helped contextualize the issue and drive home the need for action?

As with all issues of global significance, you don’t have to look too far for someone who has been impacted. During the workshop, all it took was one simple question: has anyone here experienced a cyberattack?

We heard firsthand what a state-sponsored cyberattack feels like when an attendee from Kyiv, Ukraine, shared their experience of the 2017 NotPetya attack. Although the Russian-linked cyberattack targeted Ukraine, it impacted over 65 other countries. NotPetya brought one of the largest global shippers to its knees, shut down financial institutions, and even shuttered grocery stores—locking people out of their daily lives. Hearing cyberattack statistics is one thing, but understanding how a cyberattack can impact you is another. Our workshop participant helped us understand the experience of having a foreign-state unleash malicious code on machines in your country, suddenly making it impossible to complete the everyday tasks of mailing a package, taking money from the ATM, or buying groceries. In Digital Peace Now’s recent interview with a hospital cyberattack victim, we even saw how it can prevent patients from receiving medical care.

Her story helped build a necessary bridge for our workshop, one that connected modest discussion to genuine engagement. The conversation evolved into a collective journey towards understanding why we should care, how we can engage others, and how we, as individuals, can create change. The fact that over 60 nations are developing offensive cyber capabilities was no longer a quotable statistic—it was a rallying cry! We realized we need to push our governments to change while remaining connected to the global goal of digital peace.

To get the general public to understand the issue and take action, attendees suggested everything from using dramatic storytelling of individual attacks, putting modern cyberwarfare into historic context, and tying cyberwarfare to other issues where global communities have demanded progress, like climate change and banning nuclear arms. One of the more activist-oriented participants pointed out that in their own nation there were open public demands that governments be more transparent on a variety of issues—why not extend that demand to cyberwarfare policies?

I may have been charged with leading the conversation, but the workshop was all about asking tough questions together and collaborating to find answers. Our MozFest event showed me that people will fight against cyberwarfare if they understand the impact of state-sponsored cyberattacks and if they can understand that there is a way forward. People can watch the news and read the articles, but until the story resonates with them, it will feel like an insurmountable political problem. So, I encourage all of you, the digital citizens reading this post to help spread awareness, and if you were directly impacted by a state-sponsored cyberattack, share your story and help others understand just how critical it is that we stop cyberwarfare.

Watch our full MozFest workshop here!

We want to hear from you:

  • Were you directly impacted by a state-sponsored cyberattack?
  • Have ideas on how to help people understand the threat of cyberwarfare?
  • Want to collaborate on a video, blog post, or event?

Write us at: [email protected]

— Written by Raj Burli, Digital Peace Now’s Global Ambassador.