Book review: Cyberphobia

The internet is incompatible with security, both national and personal, because it was never a priority from its inception according to a new book, says JP O’Malley.

IF YOU want to understand why a steady security system seems so incompatible with the borderless nature of the online world, a helpful exercise is to look back to origins of the internet itself.

Back in the late 1960s, a group of American engineers, using distributed packet switching technology, developed a plan to connect a number of computers together.

The first computer-to-computer message was sent from UCLA to Stanford Research Institute on October 1,1969: the network became known as ARPANET.

At the time, it was pretty much a non-event. However, the basic premise of the idea — connecting a network of computers together to share information — is solely responsible for the way human beings today use technology to interact instantaneously around the globe.

It wasn’t until 1989, however, when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web — a way of labelling data on a network so that numerous people in various locations could view the files they needed — that the internet, as we now know it, began to emerge.

In Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet, Edward Lucas — a senior editor at the Economist who has worked in Eastern Europe since 1986, reporting on espionage, cyber security and energy — begins by reminding readers why the internet presently has these pressing security issues.

“We are now trying to make a system secure that wasn’t designed to be secure in the first place,” Lucas explains when we begin our conversation.

“We’ve always put convenience, innovation, and cost ahead of security on the internet. But if you said to the inventors of the internet, we are going to use this to run the global banking system, I think they would have said: ‘well it’s really not designed for that’.”

The main thrust of Lucas’ argument is this: the moment we go online in our personal and professional lives, protections we take for granted when dealing with institutions in the real world completely vanish.

Cyber security is, as Lucas points out, one of the biggest geopolitical threats of our times.

And while there are certain strengths to the book’s core thesis, after I finished it, I didn’t feel in the least bit persuaded by his argument.

For starters, the book is saturated in the language of paternalistic fear. Lucas tends to view the world in stark ‘good vs evil/ the west vs the rest’ ideological lines.

It’s hardly surprising though. Lucas’ other books include titles such as The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West’ and Deception Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West.

Even still, for a journalist, Lucas seems to have unquestionable loyalty towards western nation states and their rigid security policies especially.

In Lucas’ worldview, you either support the autocratic policies of the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA), and its British counterpart, the GSHQ — and their undemocratic policy on spying on their own citizens for the benefit of the all-knowing all-powerful-Leviathan — or, you are effectively a sympathiser with criminals, hooligans, activists, and hostile foreign powers.

Lucas, sounding like a 19th century anthropologist, uses the phrase ‘civilised countries’ a number of times throughout the narrative.

Presumably, this refers to the United States, Great Britain, and other western nations who can do no wrong in his eyes. While Russia, Iran, and China are seen as the evil enemy who can never ever be trusted.

In fact, the language of fear that Lucas uses throughout the book is the same kind of hyperbolic rhetoric we’ve become accustomed to hearing from western governments trying to scaremonger the electorate into the idea that only bombing the shit out of the Middle East will save western democracy.

“They are winning and we are losing,” Lucas writes.

Further warnings in his book include: “Unless our thinking and behaviour change, we will become less safe, less free, less healthy and less happy.”

Scaremongering is Lucas’ speciality though.

Two years ago, he wrote The Snowden Operation: Inside the West’s Greatest Intelligence Disaster.

The only mainstream paper in the UK that covered the book was The Daily Telegraph. And Lucas wrote the article himself.

In it, he referred to the former NSA whistle-blower as a “useful idiot [involved] in reckless self- indulgence whose actions serves our enemies.” For all the media hype generated by Glen Greenwald, The Guardian, the BBC , and elsewhere about the Snowden revelations in 2013, Lucas maintains that the material actually doesn’t prove that the NSA, or the GCHQ took part in any wrongdoing or abuse.

“Snowden did a lot of damage to the effectiveness of the intelligent services,” says Lucas.

“I was expecting to find out that GCHQ was spying on the Occupy movement or the anti fracking movement. But it never surfaced. And the stuff that Snowden was worried about — where the government would supposedly use the intelligent services as a tool for political purposes — well, again, that hasn’t happened. What did come out, however, was how western countries spy on other countries. But quite frankly: that isn’t surprising at all.”

But does Lucas not agree that abuses perpetrated by the NSA and GCHQ were blatantly undemocratic, and a complete invasion of individual privacy, to citizens in both the UK and the US respectively? “Well not really,” he responds with self assurance.

But what about relinquishing our power as citizens in a democracy over to a secret state: who can actively spy on us without our knowledge, I ask him?

“Well If the GCHQ wanted to spy on you, as a resident of the UK, they have to get a warrant. And most people will agree that the state — with the right judicial authority — can intrude on people’s privacy. There is also a general acceptance that spying on other countries is always a fairly dirty business. Spying on foreigners, however, doesn’t seem to upset people.”

If the West has reason to be concerned about certain countries in the realm of online espionage, top of the list is China: it sees spying as a crucial part of its plan to overhaul the West, claims Lucas: particularly in the nasty business of stealing intellectual property.

“The Chinese are very good at stealing blueprints for products and getting commercially viable information about what other companies are planning,” says Lucas.

“Most of this comes out of the early stages of research and development labs. Now the West might not see the damage of that for at least 10 to 15 years. But what a lot of the technology commercial espionage means is foregone revenues.”

Almost all countries engage in some kind of intelligence work, says Lucas. If a state has secrets, it tries to keep them. And if it has internal or external adversaries or rivals, it needs to find out what they are doing.

“Espionage is a very broad term,” he explains. “Some countries go for the big geopolitical questions: they want to know what the decision makers are up to? Take the Israelis for example, they’re much more narrowly focused. They want to know what is happening in their neighbourhood and what affects Israel specifically. But the Chinese, on the other hand, are more focused on commercial espionage. Espionage is essentially like a screwdriver: it just depends on what screws you want to unturn. Every country has different priorities.”

Lucas’ book doesn’t just look into the security issues of state actors duping each other online. He also spends a considerable amount of ink looking into individual online security too.

In the physical world, most of us, says Lucas, would resist any attempt where we become stateless or undocumented citizens. But on the internet, we are all effectively stateless: and there is no universally accepted form of identification, even for those who want it.

One country that has solved the problem of online identity, though, is Estonia. Starting at birth, every Estonian citizen is now given a secure digital ID from the state that they have for life. This is not a ‘Big Brother’ system, says Lucas. But rather a state passport that is secure and versatile.

The advantages are numerous: logins, passwords, or those pain in the ass text messages from private companies to verify your identification, well, they are no longer a requirement.

And, you can go online every day, safe in the knowledge that you are not going to be hacked by anybody looking to steal your money or identity.

“Other countries such as Finland are adopting this Estonian model,” says Lucas.

In the concluding chapter of his book, Lucas claims that digital technology exposes every area of our lives to attacks. And he stresses that our concepts of protection of safety are outdated, and completely blurred by our misconception that real dangers only exist in the physical world.

But, if these threats are so bad, I interject, why are we as citizens — or why, more importantly, are western governments, such as the US, UK, Germany and France — not taking the initiative to do anything abut it? “Well It hasn’t yet got bad enough that people are willing to take the steps needed to deal with it seriously. Plus, it’s expensive. The question we need to ask ourselves is this: are we as internet users going to treat our computers like cars? And see them as serious bits of machinery?

“Computers are not toys, and if we don’t use them properly, they can cause us, and a lot of people, serious damage.”

Cyberphobia: Identity, Trust, Security and the Internet

Edward Lucas

Bloomsbury, €22.99


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