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America First in the Era of Cyber Connectivity

Russian and Chinese agents and hackers, intruding into U.S. social media such as Facebook and businesses such as Marriott Hotels, have heightened Americans’ awareness of the vulnerabilities associated with our modern methods of exchanging information. The Internet is a worldwide system. Access to content from outside of one’s country is common and necessary for anyone in business, academia, healthcare, defense and a variety of other fields. The companies that do our business are often international in operation. Undesirable information from outside a country is problematic for countries that restrict freedom to gather or convey information for their citizens. China, Russia, Iran, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and many other non-democracies attempt to severely restrict Internet access and the types of information available to their people, while their citizens and information providers continually attempt to circumvent such controls. For democracies such as the U.S. and European countries, more open access allows terrorist groups and foreign agents to reach their citizens with information that is potentially dangerous or destabilizing for their countries. 

Democratic countries struggle with how to restrict potentially dangerous information while maintaining freedom of expression, and companies such as Google and Facebook struggle with whether they should agree to restrictions on the types of information they can provide when they operate in countries such as China or Vietnam. They have even been asked to provide information on their users’ activities in those countries, and, as we have seen from Facebook revelations, they have provided information either to the government or to other commercial companies on their users’ activities even in our own country.

The 5G network, which is rapidly coming to most developed markets, will increase most of the problems cited above, with greater opportunities for hackers to enter the system because of its greater number of access points.  Because of its vastly increased transmission speed, cars, medical devices, and almost any type of robotic or data collection device will be connected to the system. The companies that provide the 5G equipment, are also under suspicion, particularly Huawei from China, about installing means for agents, in the case of Huawei, the Chinese government, to use their equipment for spying. 

This week cybersecurity experts from around the world are meeting in Lille, France  at the International Cybersecurity Forum, and at the same time the World Economic Forum is being held in Davos, Switzerland. Both conferences have generated calls for international cooperation and greater international regulation of the use of our new information technology. Not all the recommendations are for common standards or regulatory actions. China is asking for some common regulatory standards but wants to protect its ability to restrict its citizens access to information. France has discussed “cyber defense” as a new type of warfare and announced its intention to use “cyber arms as all other traditional weapons… to respond and attack” its enemies. In other words, hacking and otherwise intruding into the cyberspace of enemies is a legitimate, perhaps necessary form of offensive weaponry. The U.S. notoriously, and successfully, used a cyber offensive to disrupt Iran’s nuclear facility and, according to Edward Snowden, infiltrated Chinese mobile phone providers and Huawei headquarter’s servers. China has been accused of hacking into Google and other U.S. companies to steal intellectual property as well as hacking into the U.S. Office of Personnel Management to steal personnel records of U.S. government employees.

As businesses become more dependent upon super fast networks to conduct their international operations, there will have to be agreed upon rules for how information is delivered and shared or security issues will rapidly get out of control. These same networks, used for news and social media, will increase their disruptiveness of the political and domestic lives within countries. It will be hard to enforce different standards for different regions of the world.

Although repressive governments such as China, Vietnam and Russia may seek to wall themselves off from the worldwide web, the very nature of cybercommunication and the common use of the Internet make this a case where “build a wall” makes even less sense than it does as a method of keeping people out of a country. The alternative is international cooperation and agreed upon regulations, probably as few as are necessary to insure a minimum, but safe level of security. Cyberwarfare, at its worst, can rob a country of its power, its healthcare, its transportation, its financial resources and its ability to defend itself. International rules, such as apply to chemical warfare, need to be enacted to restrict the actions that can be taken using cyber weaponry. Everyone needs to agree to punish a country that violates international regulations and every country needs to agree to punish their own citizens for illegal actions that disrupt other countries or their citizens.

A connected world cannot act as a conglomeration of independent states, each with its own set of rules and regulations, since by its very nature, the new internet and communication technology will not stay within a country’s borders. As we all become even more Internet dependent, this will be true of more and more areas of our lives.


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