The focus of espionage shifted to the online environment in an exceptional year

The coronavirus pandemic caused the relocation of many societal functions to remote access networks. Exceptionally intensive attempts of state-sponsored cyberespionage were detected in Finland.

Illustration, a gray office building with a person walking between columns.

Marked by the corona pandemic, the year 2020 will go down in espionage history as the year of cyber espionage. 

A global polarisation has emerged between authoritarian states and democratic states governed by the rule of law. This has further increased the interest of authoritarian states to acquire unlawfully, i.e. by spying, secret information about foreign powers’ decision-making and state-of-the-art technology. 

Supo seeks to detect and combat espionage targeting Finland from any direction. In 2020, espionage jeopardising Finland’s national security continued to be dominated by Russian and Chinese activities. 

The most well-known method of espionage is human intelligence, but the restriction measures imposed to curb the spread of the corona pandemic weakened the countries’ possibilities to carry out human intelligence abroad. Travelling, meeting people and mapping individuals suitable for recruitment became suddenly difficult.  

Simultaneously, the preparation of political decisions was largely relocated to remote access networks, and far more information was suddenly available online than before. The focus of illegal intelligence consequently shifted to the cyber environment. 

Supo gave early warnings of cyber operations

It can be stated in general terms that state-sponsored cyber espionage attempts of exceptional intensity targeting the preparation of Finland’s foreign and security policy decisions were detected in 2020.  

Supo gave early warnings of cyber espionage operations to public administration organisations. The aim of the operations appeared to be intruding into email services. Supo also assisted in limiting the damages and produced intelligence about the attacks to other competent authorities. Moreover, cyber espionage targeting private companies was detected in 2020, but there was no particular difference in the activity compared to a normal year.   

Cooperation between public authorities has proven effective in combating cyber threats. Like many of its European partners, Supo now has a dual role as being both a security and intelligence service.  Supo’s duty as an intelligence service is to serve Finland’s top-level national government by supplying proactive intelligence, and as a security service Supo detects, exposes and wards off any activity that jeopardises Finland’s national security, such as espionage. 

The dual role came in valuable amid the corona pandemic in 2020, because it enabled effective simultaneous action to both limit damages and produce intelligence for top-level national government and other authorities.