STARTLING new developments in the American national security doctrine have shaken the foundations of thinking about fear and safety in the world. Chiefs of intelligence agencies in the US have released a report claiming that cyber attacks and cyber espionage pose a greater danger than conventional terrorist groups like the al-Qaeda. The speed with which Internet-based technology is evolving and the alacrity with which various state and non-state actors are trying to leverage it for their own self-interests is baffling even to an advanced web-based great power like America, not to mention less technically adept nations.
Concern over the rising vulnerability on the Internet has not only spooked the US defence establishment, but also spilled into American diplomacy vis-à-vis China. Last month, the US National Security Adviser, Thomas Donilon, explicitly exhorted China to cease its "unprecedented wave of cyber attacks" against America and escalated the issue by warning that inaction and complicity of the Chinese government in incessant hacking of American critical infrastructure would "risk our overall relations."
This missive followed a series of dramatic revelations about a nerve command centre in Shanghai -- an imposing white government building believed to be run by the People's Liberation Army -- being the fountainhead of Chinese incursions into American Internet communication systems. Predictably, Beijing responded to Western allegations as "groundless accusations" and added that "China itself is highly vulnerable and among the most victimised by cyber attacks." For an authoritarian regime to publicly admit that its own computer networks are being hacked by hostile powers is a significant revelation, besides being a clever alibi. It also reconfirms that we are living in an Internet-determined world order where conflict, cooperation and strategy are all inevitably tied to individual and group applications of Information Technology (IT).
Cyber war capacities are not domains of only big guns like China and the US. They are spreading horizontally to middle and even minor powers. Notwithstanding all the punitive Western sanctions and curbs on its scientific progress, Iran is a fast learner that has announced its arrival on the stage with some spectacular "takedowns" of enemy targets over the last year. In August 2012, a deadly virus infected the information network of the Saudi Arabian oil major, Aramco, and erased data on three quarters of its corporate computers. All the infected screens were left displaying an image of a burning American flag.
It was a symbolic counter-attack by Iran against the economic lifeline of a US ally and a deadly rival in the Middle East, and also a payback for the Stuxnet virus which America and Israel had deployed a few years ago to disable Iran's nuclear centrifuges.
In September 2012, Iran is said to have scored another cyber home run with a series of sequential Internet attacks on computers of giants of the American financial industry, including JPMorgan and Wells Fargo, slowing down the overwhelmed servers and denying customers access to banking services. These targets were fair game for the Iranians, as they are subject to a financial embargo by the same Western banks. Tit-for-tat is an old and essential ingredient of statecraft, but what the Internet is doing is to widen the scope for damaging one's foes without having to break one's military personnel and hardware into a sweat or spill blood.
Even in North Korea -- which was recently visited by the CEO of Google Inc., Eric Schmidt, to open the eyes of what he called the "last really closed country in the world" to the benefits of the Internet -- cyber war is being added to conventional and nuclear abilities. A devastating set of cyber attacks on South Korea's vital information nodes and corporate computers are being attributed to Pyongyang, raising the temperature in an already conflictual East Asia.
Eventually, in the absence of any multilateral agreement at the level of the United Nations to moderate and set limits on cyber war, there could a balance of power and a "balance of terror" that will set in to regulate the murky business of hacking and destroying Internet assets of adversaries. Governing cyber weaponry is one of the cutting-edge problems facing the international community, on par with emerging issues like weaponisation of outer space and unmanned aerial attack drones.
While many governments are engaged in building up their cyber warfare sinews and flexing them against opponents, there are also some innovative and positive efforts to harness the Internet to deepen democracy inside nation-states. The government of Iceland has set an extraordinary example by deploying Web 2.0 technologies to draft its new, progressive constitution.
Dubbed as the world's first "crowd-sourced constitution, it was put together through citizen comments and suggestions via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. It was direct democracy at its very best, with nearly 4,000 concrete inputs of Icelanders (no small figure in a country whose population is merely 300,000) pouring into a Constitutional Council, which then constructed the document that would be the basis for the laws of the land. Online debates and live webcasting of constitutional proceedings in Iceland have redefined the very meaning of participatory democracy.
If cyber war is looming like an unshackled monster, Iceland is offering an inspiration for a benign and constructive turn with web-enabled "netocracy." Citizen empowerment is proceeding apace in many corners of the world via the Internet. Democracies that were suffering from a growing disconnect between average people and their elected representatives now have a powerful technological medium with which to increase accountability of rulers to the ruled. In India, we are moving in a direction of eliminating human intermediaries in service delivery on the premise that public goods can be disseminated with less corruption and more transparency if they are handled on web-based platforms. The Internet is thus reorganising the basic bond between rulers and ruled in democracies.
Dictatorships are, of course, already trembling at the potential for Internet-based revolts sweeping them away.
Yet, we must avoid over-enthusiasm about the worldwide web as a means for proliferating human freedom. Evgeny Morozov's book, The Net Delusion, cautions against "cyber-utopianism" and reminds us that the Internet is an open access medium that democratisers and totalitarians can both use at cross purposes to each other. The cyber war between states can also manifest in the form of a cyber war within states, i.e. among contentious factions and sections of society. The war that is shattering Syria today, for example, has all the makings of a full-fledged Internet-driven civil conflict fuelled by propaganda from transnational media outlets like Al Jazeera.
The current Internet era is thus a mixed bag, illuminating the old adage that technology is neither good nor bad in itself but the proof of the pudding lies in its application. Growing Internet penetration rates across the planet in the next decade will only intensify the struggles, both destructive and constructive, for competition and cooperation via the worldwide web. From an instrument of human and social will into an all-encompassing parallel world with its own order and breakdowns, the Internet is the defining feature of contemporary global relations. It is a historic challenge to try and shape it for collective good.
The writer is Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs.
© The Statesman (India). All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Asia News Network.