International Forecaster Weekly

Cyber Terror and the Future of the Web

We're supposed to believe that Hannigan is the crusading hero of the noble and valiant British version of the NSA. We're asked to swallow the line that his op-ed,  is actually a reflection of the fact that the British government loves and cares for the people of the world...

James Corbett | November 8, 2014

            Last week a top-ranking leader of an international terrorist group issued a jihad against the internet in a leading radical fundamentalist website. In this chilling manifesto, the terror leader admits that his group is planning to embed itself in the very architecture of the web by infiltrating the tech sector and forcing it to work for its own aims.

The vision of the web this terrorist mastermind paints is a bleak one; that of a web where our movements are tracked, surveyed and ultimately curtailed by a shadowy terror group watching everything we do at all times.

            For those who missed this story, the terrorist in question is Robert Hannigan, the terror group he leads is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of Her Majesty's Government in Great Britain, and his screed, entitled “The web is a terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice,” appeared in the well-known economic jihadi forum known as last Monday.

            But of course that's not what we're supposed to think. We're supposed to believe that Hannigan is the crusading hero of the noble and valiant British version of the NSA. We're asked to swallow the line that his op-ed, obligingly published by the establishment mouthpiece Financial Times (co-owners of The Economist with the Rothschilds and other elite families), is actually a reflection of the fact that the British government loves and cares for the people of the world and only wants to monitor everything they do to protect them from those evil boogeymen who use the internet to plot their dastardly deeds. As Hannigan writes:

            “GCHQ and its sister agencies, MI5 and the Secret Intelligence Service, cannot tackle these challenges [of terrorism] at scale without greater support from the private sector, including the largest US technology companies which dominate the web.[...] However much they may dislike it, they have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us.”

            One could well imagine the Gospel of Hannigan, chapter 3, verse 16: “For GCHQ so loved the world that they wanted to spy on everyone all the time.” Amen.

            Of course Hannigan's argument is spurious. The idea that the same GCHQ that has spent the last decade carefully hiding the scale and scope of its spying activities (the tapping of transatlantic cables, for instance, or the warrantless access to the NSA database) now suddenly wants to engage in a “mature debate” about privacy (which, Hannigan solemnly reminds us, “has never been an absolute right”) is so insulting to the intelligence of the public that it almost doesn't deserve a response. But it got one anyway. In a letter signed by the directors of Big Brother Watch, Privacy International, Open Rights Group and others that the FT deigned to publish in response to Hannigan's article, the GCHQ leader's specious arguments are eviscerated:

            “Mr Hannigan’s argument begins from the flawed premise that the internet is a tool of terror, rather than the greatest tool for education, expression and innovation humankind has ever seen. GCHQ seems to believe that corporations must be willing agents of the state. The tech sector in the UK and investors, already uneasy at the scale of the intelligence agencies’ intrusion, will read Mr. Hannigan’s comments and conclude that the UK is not a safe place to keep data, or build a tech business.”

            But this is not the point. Rather than reading Hannigan's op-ed as a serious argument in need of a serious response, it is more fruitful to recognize it for what it is: a terroristic threat from the actual terrorists who really do hate our freedoms. Sadly for us, these are the very same terrorists who are in the positions of political (and military and financial) power to take them away.

            As it turns out, Hannigan's ideas aren't particularly new. For example, the idea that the internet is not, as GCHQ's detractors put it, “the greatest tool for education, expression and innovation humankind has ever seen” but “the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals” is a page right out of the Pentagon's propaganda handbook. In 2003, the Pentagon produced a document to detail its psychological operations and information manipulation in the media. Called the “Information Operations Roadmap” and obtained in 2006 by the National Security Archive at George Washington University under the Freedom of Information Act, the document was notable not only for its frank admission that "Information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and Psyops, is increasingly consumed by our domestic audience," but also for its treatment of so-called “EW” or “electronic warfare.” The manual actually explicitly states that the DOD strategy regarding the internet “should be based on the premise that the Department will 'fight the net' as it would an enemy weapons system.” Precisely how the Pentagon would do this remained ill-defined at the time, but the fact that the phrase “fight the net” appears as a recurring mantra in the roadmap is surely an insight into how power centers like the Pentagon (and GCHQ) view the internet; not as a neutral tool for communication, but as an enemy weapons system that needs to be fought.

            This idea of 'fighting the net' was formalized in the creation of US Air Foce Cyber Command in 2006 and the establishment of USCYBERCOM in 2009. Coming online in 2010 under the direction of future NSA director Keith Alexander, the sub-unified command's mission statement is as problematic as the Pentagon's “fight the net” mentality would suggest. It tells us that CYBERCOM exists to “conduct full spectrum military cyberspace operations in order to enable actions in all domains, ensure US/Allied freedom of action in cyberspace and deny the same to our adversaries,” which is the kind of rhetoric that one would expect from an armed service engaged in operations on a field of battle against an enemy unit, a la old-fashioned war. But when we are talking about ill-defined “adversaries” acting in “cyberspace” in ways disapproved of by the US and its allies, what does “full spectrum” operations entail, exactly? We already know that the NSA (and GCHQ) has seen fit to interpret their own mandates to include such things as performing blanket spying on people through their smartphone apps or intercepting your Amazon purchases and implanting spying technology in them, how much scarier is it to think that there is now in existence an Armed Services command that is dedicated to inventing and deploying cyberweapons on whoever they deem to be an enemy?

            Of course the civilian side of government has its own interest in clamping down on the internet as well. Supposedly this interest is in catching criminals, terrorists and evildoers in their acts online, something that would be much easier to accomplish if people just gave up this pesky “anonymity” thing and signed onto the internet with a verified ID. A federally verified one, preferably. This is not a pipe dream; it is actually happening right now. In 2010 Barbara Kiviat wrote a Time article called “Driver’s licenses for the Internet” that noted Microsoft's chief technology officer, Craig Mundie, was pushing the idea of a verified ID for internet usage at a panel discussion on internet security. Lo and behold the idea was picked up by the White House and packaged in April of 2011 as “the National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace.” In September of 2011, the New York Times started shilling for the idea in an article entitled (you guessed it) “Call It Your Online Driver’s License.” Trying to sell itself as a great way to cut down on remembering all those pesky passwords, the idea has been pushed through to the pilot program stage, with government employees in two states currently testing the federally-verified cyber ID idea.

            In other words, it is later than you think in terms of whatever was left of internet freedom. Soon even the pretence of being able to do things online without Big Brother looking over your shoulder will be eliminated. The goal, of course, is a Chinese-style internet where a central body or authority is able to determine what is acceptable to be published on the internet and what is not, along with the system in place to be able to enforce that. This quest shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has observed how tyrants have acted throughout history. Freedoms and liberties have always been anathema to power structures, and the idea of people sharing, communicating, collaborating and generally working around the hierarchical control system sends these tyrants into paroxysms of rage. Witness the viciousness with which Uber, Lyft, AirBnB and other innovative applications for free market trade have been cracked down on by governments throughout the world.

            Thankfully there are solutions to the problem of increasing government spying/control/aggression on the internet. Unfortunately those solutions are not easy to implement. Harnessing the power of technologies like mesh networking to create an alternative internet structure is a long, slow, halting and difficult process. It means, in many senses, starting from near scratch. But in the long run, if people build, maintain and run the infrastructure themselves then it cannot be taken away from them...except by physical force in the real world. But as they say, the best way to bring down a tyrant is to make them act like one.

            So what does all of this mean for the average internet user? If the “average internet user” is someone who looks at cat pictures and sends emails to their friends, the answer is “not a lot.” But if you are interested in the type of information provided by newsletters like this one, the impact could be huge. In an internet future where you have to sign on with a federally-verified ID in order to access the internet, and in an environment that is increasingly dominated by sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube who can arbitrarily decide what they will or will not allow their users to post, information that questions the status quo will be increasingly hard to find. That is why everything must be done to put the brakes on this process now, before it's too late.

            Perhaps you'll join me in responding to Robert Hannigan and any other political puppet claiming that censorship, spying and control is all for our own good, with a simple and effective rejoinder: Down with Big Brother.

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