Cyber Wuh?

Seymour Hersh is a better, more generous man than I. He does a characteristically sober and thorough job of investigating purported threats to military and civilian communications networks in the latest edition of the New Yorker magazine. I might like him better if he had avoided using the words ‘Cyber’, ‘War’ and ‘Terror’ all in a single headline, but in fairness, sometimes to you have to use the language to negate its power.

I would also have preferred it had he not given such prominence to Richard Clarke’s fear-mongering, indulging him with a lengthy quote describing a catastrophic cyber war scenario with nationwide power cuts and planes ‘literally falling out of the sky'[*]. It takes him several more paragraphs to debunk Clarke’s ramblings as self-promoting opportunism, and he does so with trademark aplomb – describing in some detail the economic interests at stake in this discussion and drawing a compelling portrait of the desire for control that motivates many of the characters in the world of online security.

A more cynical writer might jam a refutation up front in order not to leave impatient readers with the mistaken impression that he might somehow be endorsing these views. Hersh, it seems, trusts his readers to work through 6000 words of calm analysis; and, damn him, his trust in me at least is never misplaced.

Alas, he suffers fools far more gladly than I. His style is one which provides all involved with more than enough rope. I suspect that this equality of opportunity is what allows him to maintain access to extremely privileged sources in defense circles.

But what makes Seymour Hersh so valuable as a reporter on the military is his ability to cut through the fog of war-talk, to make clear distinctions between the actual threats and their portrayal in popular dialogue. In this particular case, he renders the world a service by drawing a clear line between electronic espionage (a commonplace activity in which the intrusions come more often from Western allies then from enemies) and actual Cyber War. He lines up a number of analysts who cogently and calmly dispel the latter as largely a fabrication used to drum up support (and budget) for increased military influence in civilian communications networks.

Most infuriatingly, he does so without down-playing the truly disturbing lack of protections against attack that characterise much of our modern communications infrastructure.

His dry-eyed depiction of NSA Director and newly-minted commander of the US military’s Cyber War command Gen. Keith Alexander is a truly magisterial piece of work. Without once voicing a word of criticism, he lays out a portrait of a man who wants, effectively, to dismantle the open, distributed (and yes, sometimes even anarchic) Internet and replace it with the digital equivalent of the Maginot Line.

There exists an innate tendency among all people with any influence to say, “Wait, this Internet thing is completely out of our control. We need to do something!” While the first sentence may be true, they neglect the simpler conclusion: If the network can’t be controlled from any single point, it can’t easily be destroyed by a single, targeted attack.

… Which is exactly what the Internet was invented to prevent.

I’ve argued in the past that the centralisation of network hardware is a liability not only to civil defense but to personal liberty. It’s gratifying to see someone else make the case so well. If you want to understand the current dynamic between an open Internet that enables unparalleled social forces and a network infrastructure that allows vastly increased levels of surveillance, censorship and control, you have to read Hersh on the matter. He’s not the last word in the discussion, but his contribution is indispensable.

[*] Clarke’s words, of course. It’s those literal falls you have to worry about. The figurative ones aren’t nearly as dangerous.