Norbert Wiener’s neologism — cybernetics — draws on the classical Greek term for helmsman or steersman or guide to highlight our odyssey across vast largely uncharted and emergent currents of human-machine interface.
Most of the cybernauts at Aspen confirm we are still far from home. If anything, the digital ocean is rapidly expanding, our risks are increasing, and self-proclaimed helmsmen disagree on our best course. Some also paused to praise the beauty of the sea and its potential bounty.
Cyber was clearly the preeminent issue this year. Several different panels dealt with some aspect of cybersecurity. I heard three issues emerge as top tier concerns: encryption, protection of engineered networks, and influencing social networks. You can listen to the details at the Aspen video archive. I will give you my high-level, overly reductionist and annoyingly analogous take-aways.
Encryption: It is effective and will soon be ubiquitous. This will undo a current strategic capability of the United States to intercept and track communications. Our guardians will lose a considerable portion of their ability to hear and see risks arising. But it is technically inevitable and the proposed technical “fixes” create their own new problems. No less than Mike Chertoff came out against proposed “duplicate key” or “back-door” solutions. I practically sprained my neck trying to see Suzanne Spaulding’s (DHS Undersecretary for NPPD) reaction to Chertoff’s comments, but from where I sat her blond bouffant was as impenetrable as Athena’s helmet.
Protection of Engineered Networks: At the beginning of the Aspen Security Forum, I perceive this is what most of the audience meant by “cybersecurity”. By the last day of the conference our physical systems are still seen as important, but only one part of cyber-strategy. Several smart men in uniform cogently and persuasively explained how these systems can and will be defended. Continuing with my classical analogy, engineered systems are the fleet of twelve ships with which Odysseus departed Troy bound for home. This is our legacy. It has been our strength. It is worth defending. It may also be worth remembering that our Greek hero returns home (under the protection of Athena) with nothing. He does return home. He is a hero. But over-time the fleet has been lost.
Influencing Social Networks: Since Wednesday this issue was inserted into almost every cybersecurity discussion. I’m not sure its a good match, but again and again the use of social networks by ISIL (ISIS, Daesh, name your poison) was treated as a cyber issue. This ranged from questions about how the United States could/should just “take out” the enemy’s network connections to how the normative values of large online populations are formed, can be discerned, and potentially deployed. It was frequently emphasized — admittedly, vaguely — that this problem will require agile, creative, and (therefore) whole-of-nation collaboration to solve. It is beyond the capacity of the government alone. [Another reminder: When our hero finally arrives home, he finds 108 rowdies consuming his wealth, spoiling his palace, and trying to marry his wife. Odysseus overcomes these varied — and mostly domestic — adversaries in an unlikely alliance with a goddess, his young son, a slave, and a cowherd. The people of Ithaca then forgive their ruler all his failures and peace is restored to the land.]
Please listen to the experts on the videos. But it was striking how our last victory (the Cold War) permeated perceptions of what many see as the rapidly increasing heat of cyber-war. Essential discontinuities between then and now are recognized, but the current context and particularities are framed in weird ways to “fit” the intellectual categories developed and deployed back then. This sort of strategic rigidity is not what finally brought peace to Ithaca.
With great appreciation I need to acknowledge the Institute for Public Research at CNA for financially supporting my attendance at this year’s Aspen Security Forum. This rigorously empirical organization is obviously not responsible for any of my observations or potentially misplaced classical analogies.