Militarisation of cyberspace gathers speed
Tensions between China and the US over cyber-security are a reminder of the hidden dangers of the information age, writes Paul Demarty
By all accounts, Chinese premier Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the United States went swimmingly. He and Barack Obama met in California, and seem to be seeing eye to eye on numerous contentious areas in Sino-American relations - North Korea, climate change targets and trade issues.
There was one matter, however, on which cordial agreement could not be reached, it seems. Obama and the US are concerned about cyber-security. Specifically, US officials complain that Chinese hackers routinely steal trade secrets for companies and sensitive information from US government agencies, with obvious advantages to Chinese business and intelligence. It appears that agreements can be reached on everything from the rogue state on the Chinese border to sabre-rattling in the Pacific, but not on that newest of battlefields: the internet and modern communications infrastructure.
Xi has hit back, claiming (no doubt accurately) that the US has been caught red-handed targeting foreign officials for cyber-attacks by US intelligence agencies. It is scarcely conceivable that there were no Chinese names on that list; however mutually profitable the relationship between China and the US may be, tensions constantly bubble under the surface. Where there is tension, there is work for the CIA.
The Chinese government is making diplomatic noises on this point. “Cyber security should not become the cause of mutual suspicion; rather it should be a new bright spot in our cooperation,” said senior foreign policy advisor Yang Jiechi.1
Yet the activities of hackers are hardly the only flashpoint in Chinese relations with the west at this point. In recent months, the Chinese telecoms and electronics giant, Huawei, has come under close scrutiny, as, through deals with BT, it stands to do a job of work on large parts of British telecommunications infrastructure. Like any Chinese company of its size, Huawei enjoys close links with the Stalinist state apparatus; slightly too close for the comfort of the Commons security and intelligence committee, whose members were “staggered” to learn that the company was to do all its security testing in-house. The rattled MPs, led by Tory goblin Malcolm Rifkind, recommended that the tests should be conducted by the UK government communications spy centre, GCHQ, instead.2
Chinese-western tensions over this are simply the latest iteration of a longer-standing phenomenon - the emergence of cyberspace as a significant battleground for the competition between states. It has been a recurrent trope of science fiction dating back to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, and appears in more spectacular form as the conceit behind films like Terminator and The matrix.
In the last few years, life has begun catching up with art. Internet connection speeds have increased to the point where it is trivial to bring down the average website with a ‘distributed denial of service’ (DDoS) attack - which consists essentially in organising enough computers to try to load the same web page in a short enough space of time to completely overload the web server’s capacity.
The hacker collective, Anonymous, for example, distributes simple programs to its sympathisers that allow the latter to participate in coordinated DDoS attacks with little technical knowledge. Not all attackers are as cuddly as the Guy Fawkes-masked hacktivists, though - the self-styled Syrian Electronic Army recently scored a number of high-profile strikes on US media outlets (including, bizarrely, The Onion) in retaliation for bias against the Assad regime. As for China, there are widespread suspicions that the regime is complicit in this kind of crude attack (the Marxist Internet Archive, for example, was taken down more than once by a DDoS attack apparently originating in China).
At the opposite end of the scale, there are malware attacks, such as the 2010 Stuxnet worm - a highly sophisticated piece of programming developed by US and possibly Israeli agents, which was targeted at a very specific combination of industrial equipment used in the Iranian nuclear programme.
Yet the merger of information technology and state power is not all about industrial sabotage or trifling attacks on troublesome websites - there is a positive dimension, too. This week saw the leak of solid documentary evidence that the US secret state is systematically hoarding phone records with the active complicity of major telecoms companies. This stuff is not easily interpreted, in its raw form, by the wilful minds of actual humans; the US is building a $2 billion supercomputer - the Utah Data Center - for the sole purpose of identifying suspicious patterns of communication. Whether or not this is actually legal, even in the post-Patriot Act era, is hotly disputed - it will continue regardless.
Utopia and dystopia
Since its earliest incarnations, there has been an odd contradiction at the heart of the internet, reflective of the more general culture of computer science.
On the one hand, the ideology of the hacker is traditionally fiercely libertarian. The internet, in one sense, embodies a utopia - the dream of open access to all human culture, the shrinking of physical distance to almost nothing. The boffins who built it - and the general computing infrastructure - self-conceive as frontiersmen (the pre-eminent pressure group of such people is called the Electronic Frontier Foundation). Despite the best efforts of the state and IT corporations, the idea of the net as exhilaratingly anarchic has tenaciously resisted most attempts at cooptation.
On the other, these people - and the marvels that they built - were coopted from the get go. Computer science as an academic discipline is, like most applied sciences, deeply imbricated both with big capital and the military-industrial complex; it is these grey men, inimical to hacker libertarianism, that provided the research grants, the material infrastructure and so on that enabled the dream to achieve its current, tenuous reality.
The concrete result is a partial downward levelling within cyberspace. It is possible for ‘hacktivists’ - be they Anonymous left-libertarians or pro-Assad crazies - to stun the mainstream media with a frontal assault on some electronic symbol of power, in a way that is far more difficult to achieve in ‘real life’. It is also much easier - with a little knowledge and common sense - to get away with it.
The same is true to a point between states. It is indubitable that the USA is better placed than any other country on earth to conduct its grubby affairs through clandestine, electronic means; but the threshold for ‘mutually assured destruction’ is considerably lower on this new military front. China can build a $2 billion supercomputer too; it can find among its 1.4 billion people enough with the skills and motivation to turn to the digital dark arts.
The levelling effect, however, is only partial. Anonymous may be able to take down a website for a few hours to make a point, but it cannot make a Stuxnet. Sophisticated industrial espionage requires the resources only a state machine can offer. Between states, too, inequalities in the general political-economic structure are reproduced. The global infrastructure of the internet is, beneath the ‘horizontal’ veneer, utterly reliant on the US, which could in principle simply cut off an entire country.
Decline of the web
It is often thought of as proof positive of capitalism’s continuing vitality, of its undiminished ability to melt solid matter into air. Yet it is clear that the internet and modern mass communication technology is yet another index of the decline of capitalism as a system. Here is something that could never have been produced according to the law of value, utterly reliant on the state from the get-go. Those basic laws of capital have never fully taken hold. Since the internet spawned the web, monetising the latter has proven remarkably difficult - perhaps especially so since its mass uptake in the early 2000s.
A few enormous companies make a fat profit out of the internet - Google, Amazon and so on - but the money (with the exception of an ecommerce giant like Amazon) does not come primarily from the production or sale of material goods, but rather a monopolistic ability to extort rent from companies further down the pecking order. Those bright-eyed app developer start-ups on Silicon Roundabout in Shoreditch, which George Osborne fancifully imagines will add up to an economic recovery, are to all intents and purposes in a relationship of serfdom with Google, Apple & co, who take a fat cut of everything they make for what amounts to a trivial web-hosting service. This is not capitalism in rude health - it is capitalism in decay.
That is also what the various murky actions of state power add up to here. The cyber-warriors of the US and China (or even Syria) simply extend into the digital world the most ominous tendency of declining capitalism - the transformation of the means of production into means of destruction.
The US National Security Agency’s ultra high-tech spying operations speak to the inability of capital and the state to ensure effective consent on a satisfactorily large scale; while the ‘dead tree’ free press was largely (never completely) coopted with considerable speed, digital communications present enormous practical difficulties for censors, blackmailers and bureaucrats (the extravagance of the Utah Data Center demonstrates the problem of scale, for one).
These are difficulties, at the end of the day, not absolute barriers. The libertarian-left exaltation of the freedom of the net is drastically overstated. It is in enemy hands; albeit the enemy’s grasp is weaker than on the ‘old’ communications infrastructure. Like most achievements of this society, there is a nugget of emancipatory potential buried deep within it - the further erosion of state borders, the speed and depth of communication possible.
Yet all around that potential lurk dangers. The possibility of low-level (or even high-level) electronic warfare is worrying. No, we will not end up vaporised in nuclear armageddon, as in Terminator. But the very interconnectedness of technology made possible by the net makes it easier than ever to inflict damage, misfortune and death on an enemy population at effectively zero risk to the aggressors. The barbarity of US drone warfare should convince anyone that this is not a safe world to be in.
1. The Independent on Sunday June 9.