Wanted: Iranian hackers

FBI director James Comey’s language in discussing the indictments of seven Iranian hackers brings to mind the language of the West.
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“The FBI will find those behind cyber intrusions and hold them accountable, wherever they are, and whoever they are,” he said.

“The world is small, and our memories are long.”

“No matter where hackers are in the world and no matter how hard they try to conceal their identities, we will find ways to pierce that shield and identify them. That is the message of this case.”

You can almost imagine John Wayne or Tommy Lee Jones delivering the words. But it’s not a joke.

The US is apparently coming to grips with this world-changing invention, and how to form a coherent response to aggression by other nation states. Thinking of the cyberrealm as an untamed frontier, one which the US cannot simply occupy, but must patrol and face showdowns in, probably makes sense.

Internally, the US has begun coordinating its prosecution to allow these kinds of cases – this is a new thing. The prosecution effort bridges national security and commercial crime in a way that is needed for the long-term strategy in the cyber frontier. Meanwhile, corporates which are long accustomed to hiding evidence of cyber intrusions from each other are taking steps toward sharing information.

As the Washington Post reports:

For years, the U.S. government had treated hacking campaigns carried out by foreign governments as matters of national security that are classified. Officials were reluctant even to acknowledge a major intrusion by a foreign country either for diplomatic or intelligence reasons.

But as the scope and severity of the intrusions have grown, that has changed.

In 2014 the US indicted 5 Chinese PLA members for economic spying online against the US. The US government has even arrested Chinese citizens caught travelling on Pacific islands like Guam and Saipan for offenses like pirating. Into the seeming chaos of globalization, the long arm of justice reaches.


The Culture of the Internet and the Fallacy of Fair Play

Part of the issue with the cyber realm is the difficulty in conceptualizing it in a way that is meaningful and understandable to the broader public. It’s everywhere but everyone’s experience of it is completely unique. With that in mind, the following line from Peter W Singer discussing Fred Kaplan’s new book ‘Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War‘ is particularly interesting:

…leaders in Washington are having a hard time accepting a simple fact — that while the Internet may have been created by a United States government research program, it is no longer under American ­government control, or even American in its makeup.

The internet has moved from an American majority to a non-American majority place. There are two issues with this worth noting.

One, I think is what I call the Fallacy of Fair Play that has dogged the thinking of US businesses and organizations on the internet. Because the internet was created in the US there is an assumption that US values, derived from courts and law, are its natural operating environment. The truth is US values no longer predominate. In fact, the understanding of the internet is very different depending on where you are on the globe.

I would compare it to how kids often understand a technology’s application in a new way from the older generation’s intentions for the technology’s use. Nations like Russia, Iran and China may have initially seen the internet as a Made-in-the-USA threat to their domestic power structure. Over time, these same nations have come to see blind spots in the America’s use of the internet – the openness, the ease of accessibility, the expectation of transparency. All of it can be subverted and exploited from outside. In addition to the spoofed emails used in APTs, there are social cyber attacks, viral news manipulation, etc.

For those of us who remember the 1980s, when the computer-to-computer communication was popularised in films such as War Games (referenced, apparently in the Kaplan’s book), the internet also spawned its own sub-culture: conspiracy theory,  RPGs, sci-fi, libertarianism, the hacker ethos, and if I recall: talk of the Illuminati and the Church of the Sub-Genius. Being a wild land that knew no distances, but brought likeminded strangers together, there were shared codes of conduct that simply emerged, drawn from the other cultures, including gaming, that many early internet users knew.

A lot of that culture informs sites like Boing Boing today. For them, the culture of the internet has been about information being free. But now nations like China and Russia make it their business to have a say in what kind of information is published online, how the conversation progresses, etc. The goal is to shape the internet-using public’s views.

The second issue: in this new world, internet users in the the US, and other open democracies, constitute a kind of outpost in a global environment not so tolerant of Western standards. As I’ve argued before, one upside is that this may offer a meaningful way for Americans to think about the internet. After all, a hostile, unknown terrain, rife with unforeseen danger (cyber aggression) and opportunity from afar are themes of the explorer and frontier days. They speak to a Wild West of sorts.

This concept could provide a cultural shorthand which American stakeholders from all walks can rally around online. It would mark a change to the existing libertarian techno culture that prevails today and that is dominated by ‘heroes’ such as Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. But judging from the current US election, Americans themselves may be tiring from the grandiose promise of libertarianism.

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Russian hacking of Barack Obama’s emails – a frontier comes into view in US cyber strategy

The fact that the Russian hacking of US President Barack Obama’s email is public information may itself be part of the new US cyber strategy, which uses a host of responses to cyber adversaries. In fact, the New York Times story comes only days after the US secretary of defense laid out a plan of action on a visit to Silicon Valley. The cohesive strategy shows the US trying to bring a set of rules to what’s essentially a lawless frontier, the internet. If the storyline of taming a lawless new land rings a bell, it’s because a sheriff imposing order on a lawless frontier town is the plot of many cowboy movies. It is, in fact, part of the myth of the frontier. And the frontier, as US historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued, is hardwired into the essence of American democracy. While the idea of the US government as white hat cowboys in cyberspace may bring a smile to the face of the some, the idea of a frontier is central to the American understanding of its place in the world, and it’s appropriate as a metaphor for the US, and Americans, to make sense of their place in cyberspace. The heart of the announcement by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is that the government will use cyber power to:

There is plenty of detail to go through in the report, including the matter of a reserve cyber force that’s being assembled. But a fundamental concern; a formalized cyber strategy isn’t just about protecting American power, as much as it is a key plank of the American way, the economically important belief that world-changing invention should be respected and rewarded, not plundered and bootlegged.

Still from the Coen Brothers' True Grit
Still from the Coen Brothers’ True Grit

It’s worth noting, too, that after years of calling China out as the most aggressive actor in the space, Russia’s cyber offensive capabilities have been reevaluated by the US. The US policy approach helps make the world meaningful to the American mind, twenty years after the broad adoption of the World Wide Web and the process of post-Cold War globalization. That period has left American politics somewhat rudderless with no grand narrative for the US in the world.

Out into the unknown  Pictured: Monument Valley (painting by Fred Grayson Sayre)
Out into the unknown
Pictured: Monument Valley (painting by Fred Grayson Sayre)

The White House’s choice to push for order in cyberspace, to set out the rules it will fight to impose, will also help shape American views of the outside world. A frontier brings with it the presumption of geography. There is a near and there is a far. The near is the homeland. In distance are cyber actors like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. In the distance is the Other. But the geography of the frontier can also mean that the “far” is the “far-off,” a place where an overarching political goal or ideal can reside. Like Martin Luther King’s journey to the mountaintop. It can be about a political place, and a people in a collective pursuit of a larger goal (a colony on Mars, Freedom from Want, etc). As easy as it would be for people to laugh of notions of frontiers and cowboys as 1950s nostalgia, the genre is much older. But the hey-day of these movies came a decade after the US stepped into the world in a real way to impose order where it was breaking down. Now, the US is seeking, as an act of self-preservation, to impose order in a chaotic, virtual place where US interests are at stake.