Who controls the internet?
By Misha Glenny October 8 2010
Squared-jawed, with four stars decorating each shoulder, General Keith Alexander looks like a character straight out of an old American war movie. But his old-fashioned appearance belies the fact that the general has a new job that is so 21st-century it could have been dreamed up by a computer games designer. Alexander is the first boss of USCybercom, the United States Cyber Command, in charge of the Pentagon's sprawling cyber networks and tasked with battling unknown enemies in a virtual world.
Last year, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared cyberspace to be the "fifth domain" of military operations, alongside land, sea, air and space. It is the first man-made military domain, requiring an entirely new Pentagon command. That went fully operational a week ago, marking a new chapter in the history of both warfare and the world wide web.
In his confirmation hearing, General Alexander sounded the alarm, declaring that the Pentagon's computer systems "are probed 250,000 times an hour, up to six million per day", and that among those attempting to break in were "more than 140 foreign spy organisations trying to infiltrate US networks". Congress was left with a dark prophecy ringing in its ears: "It's only a small step from disrupting to destroying parts of the network."
In three short decades, the internet has grown from the realm of geeks and academics into a vast engine that regulates and influences global commercial, political, social and now military interaction. Neuroscientists tell us that it is changing the development of our cerebral wiring in childhood and adolescence. Social scientists and civil libertarians warn that our privacy is being eroded, as ever more of our life is mediated by the web. It should probably come as no surprise that governments believe control of this epoch-making technology is far too important to be left in the hands of idiots like you and me.
If states start monitoring the internet, what does it means for the average user? President Obama has stated that his administration's pursuit of cyber security "will not include - I repeat, will not include - monitoring private sector networks or internet traffic". But not everyone is so sanguine. Richard Clarke, adviser to four presidents and the author of Cyber War, supports US plans to beef up its cyber defences but even he is worried about USCybercom. "We created a new military command," he wrote, "to conduct a new kind of high-tech war, without public debate, media discussion, serious congressional oversight, academic analysis or international dialogue."
Very few people understand cybersecurity. It is technologically complex and the network environment in which it operates changes at lightning speed. So governments are granting themselves new powers to intervene in computer networks without anyone, including themselves, fully appreciating what their implications are.
The establishment of USCybercom is just one element in an eye-popping expansion of security, which includes beefing up the cyber capacity of the Department of Homeland Security to deal with threats to the US's domestic cyber networks. These moves will lead to a much deeper apparatus of control and monitoring of internet activity by the US.
Some specialists argue that the gargantuan security systems involved simply will not work, and that bureaucrats and corporations are encouraging a new round of profligacy to line their pockets. Civil liberty advocates worry that General Alexander's new cyber command could dodge privacy laws to monitor our e-mails and social networking activities. And despite Obama's reassurances about such an Orwellian scenario, so much of Alexander's written testimony to Congress has been labelled classified that nobody outside the Pentagon and the White House quite knows what the military cyber strategy involves.