Danger Lurks in Growing New Internet Nationalism

Cyber-espionage is old news. What's new is the rhetoric, which is reaching a fever pitch right now.

By Bruce Schneier
MIT Technology Review
March 11, 2013

For technology that was supposed to ignore borders, bring the world closer together, and sidestep the influence of national governments, the Internet is fostering an awful lot of nationalism right now. We've started to see increased concern about the country of origin of IT products and services; U.S. companies are worried about hardware from China; European companies are worried about cloud services in the U.S; no one is sure whether to trust hardware and software from Israel; Russia and China might each be building their own operating systems out of concern about using foreign ones.

I see this as an effect of all the cyberwar saber-rattling that's going on right now. The major nations of the world are in the early years of a cyberwar arms race, and we're all being hurt by the collateral damage.

Our nationalist worries have recently been fueled by a media frenzy surrounding attacks from China.  These attacks aren't new -- cyber-security experts have been writing about them for at least a decade, and the popular media reported about similar attacks in 2009 and again in 2010 -- and the current allegations aren't even very different than what came before. This isn't to say that the Chinese attacks aren't serious. The country's espionage campaign is sophisticated, and ongoing. And because they're in the news, people are understandably worried about them.

But it's not just China. International espionage works in both directions, and I'm sure we are giving just as good as we're getting. China is certainly worried about the U.S. Cyber Command's recent announcement that it was expanding from 900 people to almost 5,000, and the NSA's massive new data center in Utah. The U.S. even admits that it can spy on non-U.S. citizens freely.

The fact is that governments and militaries have discovered the Internet; everyone is spying on everyone else, and countries are ratcheting up offensive actions against other countries.   

At the same time, many nations are demanding more control over the Internet within their own borders. They reserve the right to spy and censor, and to limit the ability of others to do the same. This idea is now being called the "cyber sovereignty movement," and gained traction at the International Telecommunications Union meeting last December in Dubai. One analyst called that meeting the "Internet Yalta," where the Internet split between liberal-democratic and authoritarian countries. I don't think he's exaggerating.

Not that this is new, either. Remember 2010, when the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and India demanded that RIM give them the ability to spy on BlackBerry PDAs within their borders? Or last year, when Syria used the Internet to surveil its dissidents? Information technology is a surprisingly powerful tool for oppression: not just surveillance, but censorship and propaganda as well. And countries are getting better at using that tool.

But remember: none of this is cyberwar. It's all espionage, something that's been going on between countries ever since countries were invented. What moves public opinion is less the facts and more the rhetoric, and the rhetoric of war is what we're hearing.

The result of all this saber-rattling is a severe loss of trust, not just amongst nation-states but between people and nation-states. We know we're nothing more than pawns in this game, and we figure we'll be better off sticking with our own country. 

Unfortunately, both the reality and the rhetoric play right into the hands of the military and corporate interests that are behind the cyberwar arms race in the first place. There is an enormous amount of power at stake here: not only power within governments and militaries, but power and profit amongst the corporations that supply the tools and infrastructure for cyber-attack and cyber-defense. The more we believe we are "at war" and believe the jingoistic rhetoric, the more willing we are to give up our privacy, freedoms, and control over how the Internet is run.  

Arms races are fueled by two things: ignorance and fear. We don't know the capabilities of the other side, and we fear that they are more capable than we are. So we spend more, just in case. The other side, of course, does the same. That spending will result in more cyber weapons for attack and more cyber-surveillance for defense. It will result in more government control over the protocols of the Internet, and less free-market innovation over the same. At its worst, we might be about to enter an information-age Cold War: one with more than two "superpowers." Aside from this being a bad future for the Internet, this is inherently destabilizing. It's just too easy for this amount of antagonistic power and advanced weaponry to get used: for a mistaken attribution to be reacted to with a counterattack, for a misunderstanding to become a cause for offensive action, or for a minor skirmish to escalate into a full-fledged cyberwar.

Nationalism is rife on the Internet, and it's getting worse. We need to damp down the rhetoric and -- more importantly -- stop believing the propaganda from those who profit from this Internet nationalism.  Those who are beating the drums of cyberwar don't have the best interests of society, or the Internet, at heart.

earlier essay: Take Stop-and-Scan with a Grain of Salt
later essay: Our Security Models Will Never Work—No Matter What We Do
categories: Cyberwar and Cyberterrorism, Computer and Information Security, National Security Policy
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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