I believe we’re engaged in a battle on the internet. It is an asymmetric conflict, meaning one side is fighting and winning while the other side is on the defensive and may not be aware that it is in an engagement.
As with many human endeavors, some will choose to turn any possible position their way and it’s unsurprising this would happen on the internet. A difference this time is the extraordinary ease to gain tremendous advantage at others’ expense with minimal risk. This is because the internet allows effectively anonymous and untraceable action at a distance. This action ranges from the mischievous, through the cynical, to the evil.
To be sure, commercial and nation-states are increasingly aware of the opportunity, power, and compulsion to engage this new battlespace but offense has a tremendous advantage. We can see this when we look at the post-World-War-II international structure where power was maintained by unprecedentedly powerful nation-states who certainly held the ability for global destruction, but were held (sometimes barely) in check by a desire for stability based in fear of the alternative.
In the past, an attacker could expect to be met with an overwhelming and potentially disproportionate response that would not only destroy him, but also his society and the planet. Thankfully, these actors’ sense of self-preservation, if not their morality, helped prevent conflict guaranteed to be worse than the World War they’d often personally experienced.
Nation-states’ tendency for proselytizing and gain was tempered by the realization that they would receive personal harm from such actions. Meanwhile they addressed crime through the expansion of international law, surveillance, and enforcement.
This has changed.
International stability has checked people’s compulsion to gain at others’ expense. This simultaneously led to unprecedented societal expansion and vulnerability.
People being innovative, they’ve worked to find other ways to compete and gain advantage.
“Terrorism” was the first step, creating a hybrid of nation-state-style politics with criminal action. Unorganized non-nation-state actors discovered they could gain advantage by disrupting large societies at relatively little cost to themselves. They might choose to take these actions to “fight back” at governments they deem oppressive and incompatible with their chosen way of life. This is accomplished by preemptively and anonymously attacking soft targets, those who are least prepared to expect and respond to it. Nation-states struggle to respond because traditional military and law enforcement organizations were not envisioned to address this threat.
This terrorism has moved to the internet. The international, inexpensive, easy-to-use, and ubiquitous nature of the internet provides an opportunity for organizations to gain advantage, be it political, financial, or ideological.
It is well known that groups like al-Qaeda and Daesh/ISIS have used the internet to extend their scope at a relatively low cost. Social media facilitates candidate recruitment, encrypted messaging allows secure communications, and commerce systems support fundraising. These capabilities were not available to previous groups, which served to limit their growth.
Governments are very concerned about the perceived threat from these new capabilities. They’ve advocated a requirement for software companies to build backdoors so encrypted communication may be decrypted. There are numerous technical, social, and legal impacts from this approach and I expect it will never come to fruition. I’ll chat about this in a future post. In the meantime, I’ll share that Australia has gone so far as to say that their laws prevail and they want the access regardless of the laws of mathematics (which drive encryption). Interesting.