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.