The deputy assistant director of the FBI’s cyber division, Steven Chabinsky, told a conference on Tuesday:
“The cyber threat can be an existential threat — meaning it can challenge our country’s very existence, or significantly alter our nation’s potential…. How we rise to the cybersecurity challenge will determine whether our nation’s best days are ahead of us or behind us.”
That’s serious language.
Several weeks ago I was with a group of homeland security executives who agreed the cyber threat was really important. They were equally in agreement the nation would not get serious about the threat until we experienced the cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor.
Why is that?
Beyond the usual “human nature” kinds of hypotheses, I think part of the answer has to do with the difficulty understanding what the cyber threat actually is. Why should it have the same fear status as, say, a biological attack on the nation, a nuclear detonation in an American city, a Mumbai-style attack on multiple-cities — pick your own “challenge to our country’s existence” scenario?
Chabinsky talks about cyber terrorism, the theft of state and corporate secrets, and cybercrime. I am sure there are detailed reports available that give more information about why cyber is a serious threat. And I mean to find and read them.
I also mean to track down a copy of CNN’s “We Were Warned: Cyber Shockwave” attack simulation. I hear two stories about it: On the one hand, the “presentation was excellent and it highlighted some very real vulnerabilities.” On the other hand, “This scenario is removed from reality. This could have possibly happened 9 years ago. The pillars of the private sector have developed contingency plans just in case of this type of “event”. At best this is a poorly constructed “war game” at worst this is a piece of think tank propaganda.”
I am confused. So I am looking to learn about the cyber threat and understand why it should be a high priority homeland security issue.
As a part of my education, I came across an out-of-frame essay in the Financial Times [free, but registration is required] that sees cyber space not as a way to exchange information, but as a “new continent,” rich in both resources and peril. And before too long, many of us will spend so much time living in the new continent that, “… almost any human interaction of any kind will require use of the internet.”
From this perspective, we will have two homelands: the United States and the Internet.
States embark on a scramble for cyberspace
By Misha Glenny
Published: March 17 2010 23:20 |
It is time to stop thinking of cyberspace as a new medium or an agglomeration of new media. It is a new continent, rich in resources but in parts most perilous. Until 30 years ago, it had lain undiscovered, unmined and uninhabited.
The first settlers were idealists and pioneers who set out from San José, Boston and Seattle before sending back messages about the exciting virgin lands that awaited humanity in the realm of the net. They were quickly followed by chancers and adventurers who were able to make fortunes by devising their own version of the South Sea Bubble.
It was inevitable that the wondrous materials found all over this territory would attract the interest of nation states. Now, the scramble for cyberspace has begun. Military and intelligence agencies are already staking their claim for the web’s high ground as civilian powers lay down boundaries to define what belongs to whom and who is allowed to wander where.
Cyberspace is being nationalised rapidly. In some parts of the world, this has been going on for a while. Russia has been running a programme known by the delightfully sinister acronym Sorm-2 (System of operational investigative activities) since the late 1990s. This ensures that a copy of every single data byte that goes into, out of or around the country ends up in a vast storage vault run by the Federal Security Service. You can read about atrocities committed in Chechnya if you wish but you can be confident that somebody will be looking over your digital shoulder.
China, of course, has its “great firewall”, filtering politically incorrect sites along with pornography and other forms of cultural contamination. But of even greater import is China’s demand, effectively conceded, that the US relinquish control of the internet’s language and domain names through the Californian non-profit organisation Icann. This is being transformed into a United Nations-style regulatory operation. China will soon have absolute say over the internet’s structure within its borders. [Note: this was written before this week’s skirmish in the first war between nation states and virtual states: i.e., China v. Google.]
The legal mapping of cyberspace in the west is more chaotic. But we are now witnessing the establishment of myriad laws and rules by legislators and in the courts. In a hearing this week … in London following a major cybercrime trial, [an attorney] put his finger on it when he argued that “we are entering a world where almost any human interaction of any kind will require use of the internet”.
So while there is clearly a pressing need to define rules that apply in cyberspace, they are emerging at speed with little coherent strategy behind them. Nobody knows where this process will lead for two central reasons. The speed of technological change means that the traditional tools of state used to carve up the world in the 19th century, such as laws and treaties, are often inadequate, if not entirely irrelevant, when applied to this new domain.
Law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the Serious Organised Crime Agency in Britain have invested considerable time and money in bringing down criminal networks on the web. But as the Internet Crime Complaints Centre in the US has just reported, the losses from cybercrime continue to climb at a staggering rate because criminals adapt at lightning speed to new policing methods.
In the commercial world, major legislation concerning copyright … is unlikely to withstand the second great variable – the coming of age of the net generation. Laws banning file-sharing are likely to prove as unpopular as the poll tax that helped bring down the Thatcher government. They also look utterly unenforceable.
As a harbinger of change, we are seeing political parties springing up throughout Europe with names such as the Internet party or the Pirate party, which understand the web as simply part of human DNA. “In the collision between the old and the new on the web,” argues Rex Hughes, a Chatham House fellow who is leading a cybersecurity project, “the old always wins the first few rounds but eventually they die off.” [my emphasis]
But the greatest battle is happening in the area of cyberwarfare and cyberespionage. Symbolically, the US designated cyberspace as the “Fifth Domain” last June and the first man-made one after land, sea, air and space. Nato lawyers are trying to work out how the laws of war operate in cyberspace. Hysteria is accompanying this new arms race, as when Admiral Mike McConnell, former director of US National Intelligence, claimed at a Senate hearing last month that “if the nation went to war today in a cyberwar, we would lose”.
Meanwhile, the phenomenon of “anonymisation”, so useful for cybercrime, is a gift to intelligence agencies as they sniff into every corner of the web to find out who is up to what.
None of this would amount to a hill of beans were it not for [the attorney cited above’s] point that everything we do is somehow mediated by the web. Governments are becoming obsessed about the need to control the internet but have yet to work out how to do this without suffocating the noble goal of those pioneers who merely wanted to facilitate communication between ordinary people. Heaven forbid!