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Iran: How to counter covert action in the digital age


The case of Iran shows that countering covert action in the digital age requires transparency, persistence and international cooperation. But also that it is unrealistic to expect states to stop completely.

Governments, military forces and non-state groups use covert action to understand – and influence – what their adversaries and allies are doing. The digital age has created many new opportunities for covert action, but has also made traditional strategies much harder to conceal. Digital capitalism’s thirst for data generates detailed online footprints, whether working, shopping or spying.

In this environment, three key strategies for covert action have evolved. The first is implausible deniability, such as Russia’s ‘little green men’ in Ukraine after 2014 – a course of action forced, in part, by Russian soldiers using geolocated photos  and apps on the front line. The second is to use distraction and disinformation, hiding embarrassing or sensitive facts in a forest of false counterclaims. The third is to attempt to shield certain audiences from leaks, imposing censorship to limit domestic impact from international scandal, a strategy more often used by states with authoritarian tendencies.

Countering these changing strategies requires transparency, persistence and international cooperation, as evidenced by the case of Iran.

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