On January 2, Dr. Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Asia Institute, sat down with Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program of the Brookings Institute. Singer’s research focuses on three core issues: current US defense needs and future priorities, the future of war and the future of the US defense system. Singer lectures frequently to US military audiences and is the author of several books and articles, including his most recent book, Cyber Security and Cyber War (www.cybersecuritybook.com). This is the third in a six-part series.
Emanuel Pastreich: “One of the challenges for us today is the distinction concerning the attribution for various cyber threats. Are these problems a result of a decline of morality, bad behavior, increased corruption, or is this problem simply a product of Moore’s Law? Many crimes are simply easier and cheaper to do today. The problems cannot be stopped easily because they are driven by changes in the playing field itself.”
Peter W. Singer: “You ask two very important questions. But let us first try to disentangle a bit. On one hand, we can talk about the motivations of groups like ‘Anonymous’ that have, in many ways, become the bogeymen of the cyber era. In one of the chapters in the book I ask somewhat ironically, ‘Who is Anonymous?’ The book delves into the history of the organization and describes how it operates. What is important to understand is that this organization defies our traditional notion of a top-down hierarchy. Rather, Anonymous is more of a constantly shifting collective. But also, consistently throughout its history, there has been a focus on Internet freedom, Internet good behavior. For example, the public debut of ‘Anonymous’ in the mainstream media came when the group helped to track down a child predator. Later on, the line that connected everything from the operations they carried out concerning the Church of Scientology to their role in ‘Operation Avenge Assange’ in response to the financial supporters of WikiLeaks being challenged, to the many activities being carried out today, was the emphasis on threats to Internet freedom. People can certainly go back and forth debating on whether Anonymous’ has gone too far or not. But the problem is that policy makers talking about cyber security tend to lump together ‘Anonymous’ with Al-Qaeda or Russian criminal organizations. Those are all very different organizations. We need to be clear about the variety of players.
“Regarding your second point, one striking feature of the short history of cyber security and cyber war is rate of the game change in our generation. With regards to technology, security, and war there is a far lower barrier to entry now and, in turn, the greater empowerment of smaller organizations — all the way down to individuals.
“Technological change forms a clear line that connects the past books that I have done on private military contractors, child soldiers, robotics, and now in cyberspace. Several centuries ago, whatever the weapon of war, it required a massive scale to build and operate effectively. Historian Charles Tilly said that ‘War made the state and the state made war.’ There was a centralization of power before. Instead, now, with the new technologies, cyber weapons or drones, a massive organization such as a “Manhattan Project” is no longer needed to produce a small drone or to carry out a cyber attack. While these new weapons have certainly been useful to governments, they have even been even more empowering for small groups and individuals. Some people dismissed users like ‘Anonymous’ as ‘all bark and no bite.’ But, a small group of online individuals, most of whom had never met, have found a way to mobilize and to direct the world’s attention to causes about which they care. That was not possible before.”
Pastreich: “You have perhaps a slightly more optimistic view of what is happening. It seems to me that when ‘Anonymous’ carries out their strikes for Internet freedom, there are groups in corporations or in government who go along with them, even support them in their efforts, not because they necessarily believe in the ‘Anonymous’ cause but because it aids them in their particular agenda they are pursuing. Maybe they just want to bring down the NSA so they can get a piece of that enormous budget. It is a bit more complicated than it appears.”
Singer: “Yes, absolutely. It is both a new trend but also the story of politics going back to the ancient philosophers. In discussions about technology we tend to want to focus on the technology itself. Engineers are most comfortable talking about how it works. However, why it matters, in history, always comes back as the critical issue. To understand what is happening in cyberspace and cyber security, we need to understand the people, the organizations, as well as the motivations and incentives that drive them we need a broad perspective. We must get a glimpse at the dynamics going on within a group such as ‘Anonymous’ and how governments are reacting to it. That perspective also helps us understand why certain business sectors, like the financial sector, have done a great deal in protecting themselves in cyber security, while others such as the electrical power grid have not. It all comes down to incentives.”