Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

Archive for July 2009

Three more for Thursday

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1.  U.S. military considers banning social networking technologies, due to security concerns (Wired Danger Room). Watch out for that pendulum. Leads one to wonder how much of the security problem is purely due to the technologies, and how much is due to things like architecture, data structures, and organization.

2. About 70% of Nigeria’s bandwidth lost in an undersea cable cut (BBC).

3. The MS-Yahoo! deal doesn’t include Yahoo! China. Not that it matters, in terms of China’s search market (The Register).

Written by Mark

July 30, 2009 at 9:11 pm

Pakistan upgrades targeting from Google Earth

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From yesterday’s NY Times:  Pakistan improves precision targeting by moving from Google Earth to more precise image sources. Which means Google Earth is a fairly sophisticated fallback option if these new image sources fail.

Written by Mark

July 30, 2009 at 8:10 pm

Posted in Military & Security

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Principles for defining cyberwar – a modest proposal

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After re-reading yesterday’s link from Wired, I’m more convinced that it’s time to set a more precise definition for “cyberwar,” before the term gets further muddled, misused, and manipulated by politicians. These aren’t necessarily new – the issue’s been under debate in military legal circles since at least the mid-’90s – but hype and consequences seem to be outracing the debate.

Principle #1:  A better definition of “cyberwar” should seek to inhibit rather than encourage war. Let’s start with the idea that “cyberwar” will include a set of acts, perpetuated through information systems, that by themselves legitimate an armed response. If we hope to limit armed conflict – and preserve the Internet as a forum for dialogue – we have a responsibility to keep the set of acts constituting “cyberwar” to a carefully limited domain. Which means…

Principle #2:  It isn’t cyberwar unless it’s war. References to the “digital Pearl Harbor” scenario – some of which are oddly reminiscent of Y2K fears – tend to paint a picture of cybercrime on a massive, anarchic scale. Take this excerpt from a 2000 article in the Air & Space Power Journal. It’s worth quoting in its entirety:

“One step higher in the conflict spectrum is the situation where a government agent actually denied services, corrupted data, or placed alternate data in the target country’s computer system, resulting in a shutdown of that country’s infrastructure assets (loss of power, utilities, air traffic control, etc.) potentially causing chaos and death in the target nation. We have now undoubtedly entered the arena of offensive Information Warfare (IW). Although no bombs or missiles have been dropped or launched, the target country has suffered actual, tangible damage. It would be difficult, indeed, to convince the targeted country that they were not under attack. Most likely, the “victim” state would believe that they had the authority (and perhaps a “duty”) to defend themselves under the authority of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. Surely most victim countries would perceive this as an “act of war,” “use of force,” or “act of aggression,” or whatever terminology they decided would best serve to justify their retaliatory action. Academic debate of semantics would abruptly end when news programs could broadcast images of the tangible results such as aircraft wreckage, starving city dwellers, hospital intensive care units without power, riots, et cetera, and negative attention would turn toward the aggressor state.”

The word on which this excerpt turns is in the third line:  “…potentially causing chaos and death…” It’s a dangerous qualifier. It does seem sensible to include within the realm of “cyberwar” those acts which cause death and chaos, as long as we can precisely define chaos in terms of state sovereignty. But that word “potentially” tends to loosen the causation link between the act and the consequence. “Potentially” takes us away from [U-boat blockade = British starvation] to [financial system disruption = starvation], which I’m not convinced is the same thing. A definition of cyberwar that loosens causation – that, in other words, cannot demonstrate a direct, causal relationship between an intentional cyber-act and a violent outcome – blurs the line with cybercrime, and thereby makes the potential for war easier. Which implies…

Principle #3:  Cyberwar should be attributable to cyberwarriors. Laws and conventions governing war require uniforms and markings. Military vehicles are marked as such, clearly distinguishable from, say, civil ships and aircraft. The more difficult it is to separate criminal acts from a legitimate use of force, the greater the opportunity for misattribution and retaliation…and the greater the temptation for states to engage in illegitimate uses of force.

This last point seems quaint – certainly, there’s a lag between laws and conventions defining war, and the technology used to wage it. But isn’t that the point? John Arquilla of the Naval Postgraduate School has pointed out that the Chemical Weapons Convention offers a solid precedent for restraining a “cyber arms race,” a race which will take on velocity if we can’t get our definitions under control.

Minor addendum, part I: With reference to principle #2 – and Arquilla’s own belief in the potential for a cyber 9/11 – is it really sensible to develop terms around the scenario of an act that’s limited purely to information systems? It’s unconvincing. Such an act, even if possible to the description outlined above, doesn’t seem rational. It would likely leave most military forces intact, which means that the attacked state would preserve significant potential for a very real and damaging response. A more likely scenario seems one in which a “digital Pearl Harbor” is accompanied by an actual Pearl Harbor…in which case the digital side is just a secondary accompaniment to a very real act of war.

Minor addendum, part II: As Arquilla also points out, Russia (“ironically”) has been advocating an agreement to govern cyberwar for 13 years. This NY Times article from June highlights the differences between U.S. and Russian stances.

Written by Mark

July 29, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Posted in Military & Security

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Three for Tuesday

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Seen around the cyber-halls on a Tuesday afternoon:

1.  Courtesy of Slashdot and Spiegel Online:  SWIFT, which handles transfers between financial institutions, is moving its servers and database from the U.S. to Europe. The EU is likely to let the U.S. to continue to monitor SWIFT transactions for anti-terrorism purposes…at least for now. How likely would approval have been if this move had been made during the Bush years? Will a change of…well, tone on the part of the Obama Adminstration be enough to mollify opposition to activities that arguably encroach on European privacy measures?

2.  Over at Wired’s Dual Perspectives, Kim Zetter has an article that sort of makes the right point…that we need much improved definition around terms like “cyber war” and “cyber attack”…but then muddles that point with language like this:   “In a battle where the militarized zone exists solely in the ether(net) and where anyone can wield the cyber-equivalent of a 10-ton bomb, how do we fight, let alone find, the enemy?” To illustrate the point, there’s a reference to the infamous Homeland Security video from 2007 about the U.S. power grid, and a story from 1982 (!) about a logic bomb that literally detonated a Siberian pipeline. I’m not convinced that you get anywhere close to un-muddling terms like “cyber war” until we stop using military metaphors that don’t really mean much, viz. cyber-equivalent of a 10-ton bomb.

3.  Courtesy of North Korean Economy Watch:   somebody put KCNA on Twitter. Which means that Twitter might just be pure entertainment.

Written by Mark

July 28, 2009 at 2:04 pm

If border controls go up in cyberspace…

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…it won’t be because of sophisticated “cyberwar,”  “cyberespionage,” or anything that has similar sci-fi-ish connotations. It’ll be because of incidents like these protest hacks of an Australian film festival coming out of China, all because of the festival’s Uighur connection.

Not war. Not espionage. Obstructions. Annoyances.

What’s troubling is when public perceptions of obstructions like these get conflated with more serious, state-sponsored threats – particularly in a time of significant debate around Internet regulation, monitoring, and privacy. Watch this excellent Bloggingheads discussion between Evgeny Morozov and Ethan Zuckerman to understand why.

Written by Mark

July 27, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Hiatus over

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Sometime around April Fool’s Day, I took a break from Radical Instrument. I missed a lot:  Iran and #neda; the start of a real (and badly needed) debate over “cyberwar”; China’s “Green Dam” filter and technology companies’ response.

More than I thought might happen in four months.

So if you’re reading this, thank you for hanging around. Let’s start things back up.

Written by Mark

July 27, 2009 at 10:22 pm

Posted in Random