The Politics of Power in Cyberspace
Thoughtful blog post by The Atlantic‘s Marc Ainbinder:
We allow Google, Amazon.com, credit companies and all manner of private corporations to collect intimate information about our lives, but we reflexively recoil when the government proposes to monitor (and not even collect) a fraction of that information, even with legal safeguards. We carry in our wallets credit cards with RFID chips. Data companies send unmarked vans in our neighborhoods, mapping wireless networks. The IBM scientist and tech guru Jeff Jonas noted on his blog that every time we send a text message, we’re contributing to a cloud where “powerful analytics commingle space-time-travel data with tertiary data.” Geolocated tweets can tell everyone where we are, what we’re doing, and who we like. Sure, The data is ostensibly anonymized, but the reality is a bit different: we provide so much of it that, as Jonas notes, we tend to re-identify ourselves—out our identity—fairly quickly. This is good and bad; the world becomes more efficient, we leave less of a footprint, we get what we want more quickly. But we also sacrifice privacy, individuality, and other goods that can’t be measured in dollars and cents.
Government power is just different than corporate power. Our engagement with technology implies a certain consent to give up information to companies. A deeper mistrust of government is healthy, so far as the it places pressure on lawmakers to properly oversee the exercise of state power. Warrantless domestic surveillance by NSA during the Bush administration doubtless ensnared a number of innocent Americans and monitored the communications of people who posed no harm to anyone. Where the standard is personal privacy and the rule of law, the violation is severe.
But where the standard is harm, the damage is minimal compared to the information that is routinely and legally collected by non-state entities—information that is used to target us for political appeals, to sell us something, or to steal money, to pilfer intellectual property or abuse technology. 85 percent of infrastructure in this country is in private hands; it is extremely vulnerable to attack and even to catastrophic resource failure.
This asymmetry is distorting the politics of cyber security. It frustrates the front line cyber folks to no end, but they are, in some ways, responsible for it.
For one thing, the NSA lacks credibility with many Americans and with some lawmakers because of its aforementioned activities. And yet the NSA is—really—the only entity with the expertise, the size, and the capability to secure the cyber realm. For another, the government remains obsessed with secrecy. The NSA and the Department of Defense can penetrate virtually any computer network on the face of the planet, and probably do so with regularity for defense purposes. Their capabilities in this “offensive” realm are awesome, and kind of scary. The technology that’ll be used to defend the country from cyber attacks of all types is the same technology used to track insurgents in Iraq (classified), tap into terrorist net-centered communications (classified), probe nation-state computer defenses (classified), figure out how to electronically hack into missile guidance systems (classified). Also: they’re worried that terrorists would figure out how vulnerable we really are if they knew everything. Here’s the weird part: China, Russia, savvy cyber terrorists—they know all this. They have the same technology.
My essay on who should be in charge of cybersecurity.