In the past few years we have gone from nation-state dominance of the cyber realm, to the idea of non-state actors, and now with the Snowden leaks we are moving back towards realization of state actor preeminence. The rules of the game have not changed so much as the visibility of different actors over time. We know that the nation state actors have been busy since the late 1970s and the original (Levy’s Generation 1 hackers) started out about the same time.
Frameworks to examine these concepts are heavily biased towards the nation state by those in the nation-state. It is hard to acknowledge adversaries that are not at the same level, and due to legal bias it is incentivized to find nation state ties for non-state actors. Nation state intelligence agencies want to find a super power actor behind every bad situation in cyber space because they might use that disclosure as a negotiation point.
A nation-state actor is bound by the rule of law except for when they decide to not follow it (as in covert action). The non-state actor does not perceive itself bound by the same rules, but is hampered by the technical resilience of the infrastructure it works upon. The focus of the nation state actor is upon critical infrastructure, military command and control, and continuity of government operations. The nation-state actor is bound by planning and operational concepts such as “winning” and “losing”. The non-state actor is interested not so much in winning as not losing, and focuses on commodity infrastructures and the seams of control in a government organization. Whereas a nation-state actor can be identified with specific attributes that make that actor a nation-state the same is not true for non-state actors. The non-state actor can be an individual, small group, social movement, or mega corporation.
Consider that the nation-state actor is at some point responsible to an oligarchy and that the goals of a society are not necessarily the same as the individuals. To enable the ability of the nation-state to act with freedom and to acquire information about hostile actors the nation-state is given the singular ability to compel other entities. It is the singular power of the nation to state to apply force that separates it from the non-state actor. The nation-state can only do two things with that power. It can make somebody do something, or make somebody stop doing something. Whether the form of force is military, diplomatic, economic, or information it remains a singular capability
There is another form of force and it is that of regulatory power. A subset of the economic means of force this regulatory power creates imposed agreements on non-governmental organizations to interact within a certain set of boundaries. The nation-state actor uses the regulatory control framework with the power of taxation to leverage the power of a nation. It is not lost upon domestic non-state actors that they are funding their own adversary.
Any organization run by a government will require a command and control mechanism. It is one of the principles that define a government organization from a non-government organization. A nation will then require levels and impose a hierarchy of controls upon the actor/entity at the “tip of the spear.” The more effectively this is done the more efficient the cadre involved. This creates a scale problem for highly skilled, and highly trained nation states actors.
Government constrains the actors and entities from being flexible. Starting with the paper and pen nature of the nation-state legal system you create organizational drag. When you include the treaty and agreements of the nation-state into the organizational drag and parasitic losses on decision cycles the nation-state has little flexibility in reactive capability. This is indicative of the nation-state brittleness in conflict. What the nation-state does have when considering the pondering nature
Whereas the resources are extensive for the nation-state actor, the resources for the non-state actor are still non-trivial. When discussing non-state actors there is a thought of the radical terrorist sitting in a cave without indoor plumbing or a clue. Non-state actors fill a spectrum just as varied as the nation-state actor. International corporations with the resources of large nations are considered non-state actors. Non-governmental organization with broad sweeping capabilities like the Red Cross or Red Crescent are non-state actors.
One quick reality check is that a non-state actor who has decided to take action against a nation-state has already crossed a defined line of action. Regardless of the political ideology coming to the conclusion to take on a nation-state means that the entity is in an existential conflict. The rule of law no longer is a constraint. It is hard for people raised in a federalist society to understand the freedom of action that being involved in an existential conflict gives to a non-state entity. Apocryphal but relevant, if you are going to die no matter what you do in a course of action then regardless of what you do you will not be held accountable.
It is an erroneous conclusion that everything is low budget or no budget for the non-state actor. One consideration is that the non-state actor is not constrained by a legal instantiation of acquisition and logistics. The non-state actor will likely not have the associated drag of a nation-state logistics program. The other element is that the non-state actor can beg, borrow, or steal capability from other non-state actors, nation states, or corporate providers. Budget is not necessarily a bonus to the nation state.
The nation-state is constrained in the scalability available. The non-state actor can leverage entire populations and divergent groups of citizenry who may be ideologically focused rather than nationalist focused. It is a rarity that this happens and effects of social media echo chambers have actually damped this commonly held concept. What is likely is the rare occasion that disparate actors can coalesce around fragments of a whole and work towards common outcomes even if not for the same reasons.
There is an entire set of expectations regarding non-state actors that permeates the discussion that should be dispelled with. The concept that the non-state actor is les smart, less capable, and less organized than a government organization is fallacious. In some cases the same actor who works for the government with that level of knowledge, understanding and skill is the non-state actor when they go home. The second element is that the non-state actor does not have to be a person and could be a corporation or non-state sponsored organization. In that case you may have a superiority funding and resource entity that is the provider of choice to a nation-state.
In any current literature the real study of this area is poorly and near completely ignored by funded research groups. There are only a few authors looking at it, and focus has been on a very narrow set of definitions.