Cyberwar fears: disaggregating the threat

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Is that China over there, stealing everything?

My man Mark Thompson puts up a cheeky post yesterday that I most heartily approved of. In it he speaks of cyberwar worrywarts and rightly fears that, as the terror war recedes in some priority, new little piggies approach the DoD trough. And as these cyberwar advocates find such a prime target in China, I would note that their efforts merge with those of the big-war crowd that also hopes to regain ascendancy – despite the overall budget crunch.

Now, Mark gets immediately taken to task by none other the great Bruce Sterling over at Wired (HT, Craig Nordin). All contretemps concerning Jules Verne aside, Sterling’s points don’t negate Mark’s post really at all. He just argues orthogonally that the Chinese cyber thievery is vast – meaning global, and that the general background noise of nasty bits floating around global IT networks are getting truly serious (beyond ankle biting, as he puts it). Sterling casually dismisses the whole get-rich-quick effort by cyberwar enthusiasts in the defense community by saying this is normal behavior.

I don’t have any trouble with either post, because they argue different things.  Mark’s concerned about the cyberwar threat being hyped to the point of perverting the Defense budget at a time of great choices, while Sterling is defending the notion that all these threats in general, plus China’s global thievery, are real issues worth worrying about.

My triangulation is this: China’s thievery is vast and should be dealt with globally. Historically, the US puts up with such thievery (think Japan decades ago, then South Korea) if you’re a friend who’s trying to catch up. Yes, eventually we get mightily pissed and do plenty to convince you to knock it off, but you get the drift: catching-up thievery okay for friends. China is doing the same thing the US did in the 19th century, using the best means available. China is sort of friend, sort of enemy, but we’ve put up with the thieving without much complaint until recently.

We should start the big push to re-educate China on this score. It has drawn close enough for the thieving to be interpreted as truly damaging and dangerous. China’s counter is, check out our 700 million interior rural poor. It’s a good counter, but it won’t fly going forward, so some new rule set must be generated. Naturally, America will see itself in charge of the global effort to crack down on Chinese thievery, and while we should definitely lead, we shouldn’t take charge too much, because if we do, the whole dynamic will get snatched up by our military-industrial complex and turned into something far more sinister and over-the-top – Mark’s very legitimate fear.

So to sum up: we are at a natural point with China where this becomes a very big deal. We just don’t want it to become THE national security deal. That would be inappropriate and diverting. We need our military to stay focused on the real-world tasks at hand, and not retreat into some fortress IT America mode. Militarizing the protection of our IT networks is a bad idea, in my mind.  It’s a very bad idea. And I say that as somebody who’s worked in national security for two decades and the IT private-sector industry for most of the last decade.