Reason’s recent post, “Cyber War: Still Not a Thing,” addresses the claims of various politicians that America is under constant attack from hackers and other cyber criminals. While various DDoS attacks on prominent government websites would seem to indicate a larger problem, the real issue here is the use of “war” rhetoric to remove all sense of proportion, thus greasing the wheel for overreaching legislation.
Ever since Vietnam, the U.S. government has shown an odd propensity for dragging us into unpopular (and unwinnable) wars. Between the protracted Iraq “War” (nearly a decade at this point), our involvement in Afghanistan and our intervention in Libya , Americans are finding that the old concept of “war” doesn’t really fit what’s going on here.
Back on the home front, various unwinnable wars continue to suck down tax dollars and erode civil rights. The War on Drugs. The War on Terror. The political system is no longer interested in mere skirmishes or “police actions.” Everything is a capital-W “War.”
A multitude of problems arise from couching these situations in catastrophic and adversarial terms. Declaring “war” on drugs has brought the battle to the home front and turned our law enforcement into an ad hoc military force. The slightest of violations is met with excessive force. There are dozens of stories of people whose houses have been invaded by SWAT teams armed with automatic weapons. Uninvolved children have been thrust into violent situations by the perceived wrongdoing of their parents. When a person possessing a couple of ounces of marijuana is treated like a Colombian drug lord, the system is being abused.
Using the word “war” automatically defines your opponent as violent, no matter how untrue that designation is. Declaring the nation to be in the midst of a “cyberwar” allows law enforcement and government security agencies to escalate their response to perceived threats. Every reaction becomes an overreaction. No matter what your opinion of Anonymous and like-minded hackers might be, it’s pretty safe to say that most of us do not consider them to be a violent threat.
All previous indications point to this being handled just as badly as any previous “war.” The point will come when people are overrun in their own homes by armed tactical units in response to actions like DDoS attacks which, as Reason points out, are usually “undirected protests” with “no tactical objective.” Truly innocent citizens will be swept up in this as well, considering the number of computers out there that have been “zombified” and pressed into service as part of a botnet. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has already demonstrated that it needs nothing more than an IP address to mobilize.
In times of war, corners are cut and rights are treated as privileges. When the enemy is invisible and the list of possible suspects grows exponentially with each broadening of the definition of “hacking,” the “war” becomes a convenient excuse for law enforcement fishing expeditions and violent tactical reactions. California has already decided police can search your phone without a warrant and the list of municipalities willing to expand police power with warrantless searches and abuse of “probable cause” continues to grow.
The ugliest part of this whole “war” concept is that underneath all the tough talk and tougher action is a good old fashioned money grab. Reason cites Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s quote, “We are at war, we are being attacked, and we are being hacked,” while pointing out that Maryland is home to the U.S. Cyber Command Headquarters. A Baltimore Sun piece digs deeper into this money grab:
Mikulski, the state’s senior senator, sits on the intelligence and appropriations committees. She said that she and Rep C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who sits on the appropriations and intelligence committees in the House, are Maryland’s “one-two punch” on Capitol Hill. Mikulski also was named recently to a cyber security task force, which will focus on governance, technology development and work force development nationwide.
O’Malley called for the establishment of a “National Center for Excellence for Cyber Security” in Maryland, more education and work force training, and an economic development strategy for cyber security in the state.
The computer design and services sector, which includes cyber security, employs about 60,000 mostly high-paid workers in Maryland, and grew despite the national recession, at a 7.2 percent annual clip through November 2009, state officials said.
Beginning in early 2008, towns across the country sought to lure Cyber Command’s permanent headquarters. Authorities in Louisiana estimated that the facility would bring at least 10,000 direct and ancillary jobs, billions of dollars in contracts, and millions in local spending. Politicians naturally saw the command as an opportunity to boost local economies. Governors pitched their respective states to the secretary of the Air Force, a dozen congressional delegations lobbied for the command, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal even lobbied President George W. Bush during a meeting on Hurricane Katrina recovery. Many of the 18 states vying for the command offered gifts of land, infrastructure, and tax breaks.
The city of Bossier, Louisiana, proposed a $100 million “Cyber Innovation Center” office complex next to Barksdale Air Force Base and got things rolling by building an $11 million bomb-resistant “cyber fortress,” complete with a moat. Yuba City, California, touted its proximity to Silicon Valley. Colorado Springs pointed to the hardened location of Cheyenne Mountain, headquarters for NORAD. In Nebraska the Omaha Development Foundation purchased 136 acres of land just south of Offutt Air Force Base and offered it as a site.
Proposed cybersecurity legislation presents more opportunities for pork spending. The Cybersecurity Act of 2010, proposed by Sens. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) called for the creation of regional cybersecurity centers across the country, a cyber scholarship-for-service program, and myriad cybersecurity research and development grants.
Underneath any faux “war” is the lure of unregulated tax dollars. Building a force to counteract an undefinable foe is an open-ended “goal”. In addition, this sort of thing gives government entities more of what they really want: power, money and control.
A rough Beltway consensus has emerged that the United States is facing a grave and immediate threat that can only be addressed by more public spending and tighter controls on private network security practices.
It’s a war alright. A war on civil liberties. It’s a million (or more accurately, 7.9 billion) reasons to regulate and track internet usage and criminalize yet another section of the U.S. population. Tactical operations will now be mobilized against people who bring a laptop to a gunfight. And much like any other war, once it’s underway, it’s nearly impossible to stop.
Written by Tim Cushing