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 fifth in a six-part series.
Emanuel Pastreich: “You mentioned the future of war at the very beginning. Of course this is a topic of great interest to me. Let us suppose that the computational power of the most recent NSA supercomputer will be available in a laptop in a few years. Let us imagine a world in which information processing power is so cheap that what we call supercomputers are no longer anything special. What will we have to do to maintain a secure world in that environment?”
Peter W. Singer: “We will need to determine which aspect of security comes first. There is the notion of physical security. But, there is also the notion of secure, online communications: that what I say to you is not necessarily shared with the government or other third party. That tension is at the heart of the recent NSA scandal that swept the United States and is arguably evolving into a fundamental debate globally.
“The Internet is a world in an online setting that is about sharing — the sharing of information and sharing of computing resources. As it has evolved, it has demanded that we share organizational and individual responsibilities in order to run it. There is no one thing that runs the Internet.
“This idea of sharing on the Internet is being deeply challenged. It is being challenged in terms of online expression and in terms of how and by whom it is run. We have a responsibility to be involved in that dialog, granted how much we benefit from the Internet.
Pastreich: “I want to play devil’s advocate regarding this question. You and I might not like having some government agency, or some multinational agency, checking everything that we are writing, or saying, to each other. But, one could imagine a world in say, five years from now, a world in which other people are posing as either you or I and saying all sorts of misleading things that they attribute to us — a world in which you cannot even tell whether who you are speaking to is real.”
Singer: “You do not have to imagine that world! We are already there!”
Pastreich: “In such a world, we might think it is helpful to have, and we might eventually depend upon, some agency to actually to document and tell us that this is what we actually said to whom when. An agency to assure us that the ‘friend’ on Facebook is real.”
Singer: “Absolutely. Again, the issue is frustrating in that there is no simple, easy, answer. This idea of being able to identify and track someone down makes perfect sense for the scenario that you just laid out. That makes absolute great sense. On the other hand, that very same capability may be used by some totalitarian regime against some brave dissident or human rights activist. Again, this is not speculation; it is real. An employee who votes a certain way or indicates some kind of political preference online can be punished at their job for it. This is not something twenty years out.
“In one case in the Unites States an employee wrote something on Facebook about a local election for which the boss then fired him. At the end of the day, we want absolutes, but really the issue is finding the right balance.”