GG2022 - Homecoming of the Internet
In this column Martin Kaul warns against the gradual securitization of cyber space by private contractors at the expense of the general public.
The internet as we know it today, as a space of freedom and interconnected opportunities, started out as a project which served the US military during the Cold War. It might see a homecoming soon. The unprecedented cyber security breaches made public over the last months were accompanied by talk of cyber-attacks as a looming existential threat with states and companies responding by ramping up security measures and control in their cyber space. But what we are witnessing is not just malicious cyber breaches looming from abroad followed by the tightening of security measures at home. This is nothing less than the securitization of cyber space in full gear. Securing cyber space involves many issues and interests, but the twist here is that it may not have much to do with security after all. We are witnessing a dangerous focus on “cyber war” with private contractors as the winners at the expense of public interest and the loss of internet freedom and privacy.
What is at stake? The internet at its very core
A few years ago, there was much talk about the coming “water wars”. One way of analyzing the debate and framing water as a security issue was using securitization theory, which sees security as a socio-political construct. Today, it is cyber space that is getting securitized. A growing debate on cyber security is being couched in alarmist rhetoric – claiming cyber threats to be existential, calling for emergency measures to respond to them – and thereby taking cyber security out of the usual political discourse. In the U.S., for example, few articles on cyber security leave out the remarks from the former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who warned of a ‘cyber Pearl-Harbor’, while military officials threaten to answer cyber-attacks with conventional retaliatory strikes. For its part, the Pentagon is massively boosting its Cyber Command. While cuts are being made elsewhere, the Pentagon recently announced the expansion of its cyber security personnel from 900 to 4,900.
The securitization of cyber space – Cold War 2.0?
Securitization theory suggests that security is what elites want it to be. This is also true for cyber space, as what can be considered an offensive or defensive cyber-capability largely lies in the eyes of the beholder. The internet is set to be the next arena for an arms race and there is reason to believe that its securitization, and the “twisted logic of cyber security”, may in fact lead to increased insecurity. While the issue of cyber war is politically sexy, grabs headlines on front pages and lends itself to acquire more resources, it takes attention away from other important spheres of cyber security, namely cyber crime and cyber espionage. The report by the American security firm Mandiant, published in February, is the latest indicator for the high degree of serious cyber security incidents taking place and how many of these are state-sponsored. There is reason to question, however, if the path taken by the Pentagon and other actors will lead to increased security in the cyber realm – or if more comprehensive but target-oriented security approaches combined with multilateral cooperation might be more sustainable and accountable to the public interest.
Internet freedom is not self-evident – even in the west
The military industrial complex has shifted its attention towards the securitization of cyber space with the support of private contractors how possess the knowledge and expertise required. While private companies are the big winners of the security contracts, the public interest may stand to lose more than we know. As the internet becomes the nerve center for communication and life for an increasing number of people around the world, it is important to ask how around-the-clock surveillance will influence our way of life. Fundamental rights and liberties that are held true and self-evident in the West and are increasingly valued in many other parts of the world are at stake. The internet, as a growing space for freedom of speech, expression and open debate in a digitalizing society, is enhancing such liberties that are crucial in an open society. The securitization of cyber space threatens to put an end to this trend. As internet freedom is not self-evident even in the West, we lose moral authority when demanding internet freedom in other countries, while limiting exactly this freedom at home. Rising powers such as India and China, with their massive population and huge soft- and hardware markets, should take steps to protect and make the most out of internet freedom in the interest of their economies as well as their people.
The threat to cyber security is real – but what is the right answer?
The growing trend of security breaches in cyber space is real and poses a serious threat the digitally connected community. As our interaction increasingly takes place online and the previously unwired from the developing world become digitally connected, cyber security will become an issue of growing importance for many governments. This will in turn lead to the securitization of cyber space. However, we need to look closely at the reasons for this – what is the logic behind it; whose interests are being served; what limits would this impose on digital freedom and privacy; and what other instruments might better serve cyber security than blanket securitization. We need to explore ways to improve cyber security without necessarily endangering digital freedom or privacy. A simple start could be, for example, to make anti-malware programs obligatory on every sold computer. The goal for security approaches should be a cyber space with an architecture that goes beyond the effective and efficient transfer of data, but also allows for security and privacy by design.
As it stands, the internet is much more than a platform for exchanging data. The world and the lives of the people wouldn't be the same without the internet. The internet has the great potential to help preserve the kind of peace and prosperity large parts of the world have come to see since the end of the Cold War. The freedom and possibilities the internet holds should be valued and protected – a mere homecoming of the internet to again become a domain dominated by the interests of military or security institutions is not a good idea. The world community must not allow a digital Cold War to happen.
Martin Kaul is a fellow of the GG2022 program and a policy advisor in the German National Parliament, focusing on climate and energy policy. This column is part of a series from the GG2022 fellows. For more information on the GG2022 please see here.