WASHINGTON — While U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan engage the enemy with guns, tanks, airplanes and missiles, the Pentagon is quietly fighting a much different kind of war on a new front — cyberspace.
Military officials say that a cyber-attack by foreign enemies or terrorist groups could result in “an electronic Pearl Harbor” that would shut down electricity, banking systems, cellphones and other tools of day-to-day life.
A report issued Thursday by security-software firm McAfee said government-affiliated hackers in China are at the forefront of a brewing “cyber Cold War” still in its infancy.
Within two decades, according to McAfee, the scuffle could erupt into a worldwide conflict involving hundreds of countries attacking one another’s online networks with sophisticated software.
McAfee said about 120 countries are developing cyber-attack strategies and most are merely testing them to determine the risks involved in certain tactics — though devastating international attacks could come one day.
Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of more limited cyber-assaults are already bombarding the firewalls of government computer systems daily, prompting U.S. officials and military leaders to declare the United States is already at war on the cyberfront.
I have lived long enough to have watched a number of these doomsday predictions come and go, including doomsday predictions involving widespread, international computer failures (i.e., “Y2K“). So, I don’t get overly excited when I read this kind of thing. I do not, in other words, get the urge to stock up before the hoarders get it. What concerns me more than these warnings themselves is what might be motivating them. The internet really is the last bastion of free speech, and dictatorial, authoritarian regimes rightly view it, therefore, as a threat. We are increasingly witnessing governments using filtering technologies (usually developed in the United States) to block citizens’ access to websites, to monitor citizens’ e-mail, and to keep them from installing privacy software. We are also seeing bloggers and website owners harassed and jailed during times of political turmoil, most recently in Iran and Burma. In researching this blog post I came across this hideous report of the torture of an Egyptian blogger who was jailed for four years for “defaming religion” and “vilifying the president“. The reasons usually given for government control of the internet are protection of national security, protecting citizens against pornography, and protecting intellectual property.
If I become President of the United States, I will make it a priority to protect the internet and, in particular, citizen access to the internet, and to broaden access to the internet via programs like the One Laptop Per Child Campaign. If others of the front-running candidates, Republican or Democrat, are elected, all bets are off. We have seen such a serious erosion of human and civil rights in the U.S. under the Bush Administration that we will likely never recover the ground we have lost in terms of our human and civil rights, and I have no reason to believe that any of the front-running candidates is particularly interested in restoring the ground we have lost. Without vigorous protection of the internet, internet privacy, and internet access, we will likely lose all of these as well, in time.
One thread running through the article in the Seattle Times and the McAfee report to which it refers is that many of the attacks on U.S. computer networks, government bodies and corporations appear to originate in China. Given the ongoing criticisms of China in so many other arenas — criticism of Chinese imports, food, pet food, labor practices, human and civil rights records — and American fear of Chinese economic growth, there is reason to be concerned that this is so much anti-China fear-mongering, having more to do with China’s increasing power globally and its threat to U.S. and other Western powers than with any legitimate threat so-called Chinese cyberterrorists may pose. The stereotyping and “Yellow Peril” racism in the excerpts above are disturbing, including not only references to the Chinese but to the Japanese, i.e., referring to cyberterrorism as an “electronic Pearl Harbor.”
I have personally experienced cyberterrorism and I do not take it lightly. I certainly think we should all do our best to protect ourselves, to stay educated and informed. I think we need the best possible protections on our own home computers and I think we need to elect government officials and a President who evidence at least some degree of knowledge about the internet and its significance to human and civil rights, instead of leaving this supremely important realm for male techies, computer firms and the Pentagon to deal with! Fox. Henhouse. Discuss.
In the meantime we need, I believe, to protect ourselves in other, noncomputer ways. Should internet access be compromised, we are all, after all, going to return to the local newspapers and local paper publications many have stopped reading, because they are local, and we can buy them at the local newsstand; we do not need computers in order to access them. While local news media may also be affected by internet disruptions, they will still have access to ordinary citizens and will be equipped to keep citizens connected locally.
Those of us connected across great distances via the internet, though, will have problems should internet access be disrupted or curtailed for whatever reason. For this reason, I am going to do what I’ve been threatening to do for some time now, I am going to start a simple paper publication for woman-centered women. It will begin as just a page or two sent via U.S. First Class mail each month. Yes, the internet would also affect postal service, but the postal service is going to be working on that, I am sure; it is an institution which delivered mail for hundreds of years before there was an internet.
Besides concerns over the internet, there are other reasons I think it’s time we had a simple paper publication to connect us. Snail mail communication cannot be disrupted or infiltrated by trolls. It cannot be hacked, gigaloaded or DDOS’d. E-mail addresses of subscribers cannot be phished and violated and neither can snail mail addresses of subscribers. It allows us a way to network ourselves globally and locally and to discuss issues, projects and activism and which is not visible or accessible to those who oppose our work and community. I have long believed and said that we will have to, at some point, return to paper.
So, if you would like to be on my mailing list, send me a note with your snail mail address to firstname.lastname@example.org. I will add your name to my mailing list and will immediately delete your address from my e-mail box. If you can send me postage, please do, via PayPal, especially if you do not live in the U.S. If you can’t, it’s okay, I’ll mail out these Women’s Space communiques so long as I can at my own expense, as much as I can include in an envelope with a .42 stamp (for women in the U.S.). My dream is that apart from creating an additional way to communicate which doesn’t involve the internet, a regular newsletter might help women to connect locally so that should internet connection be disrupted, women will be able to connect with other women who live nearby. It will allow us to share information, support each other, trade ideas, make plans, and offer resources. If you want to be on the mailing list and you are not known to me, either (1) provide me with a reference to someone I do know, i.e., “I am a friend of Branjor, she will vouch for me,” or (2) I will send you a brief questionnaire to ascertain that you are a person of good will. Both men and women may receive the publication, but if you are male, I will have to either know you personally, in real life or via substantial online communications, or a woman I trust will have to vouch for you. Whether I begin with two subscribers or 200, I’m going to begin. Join me! Let’s do it! It’s exciting and it’s time. Of course, we’ll keep blogging and creating websites, but I don’t believe it’s wise, given just what I have experienced over the past year, given the male domination of the internet and the increasing problems related to hacking, “hacktivism,” cyberbullying, and government surveillance and intrusions, to place all of our faith in this medium, all of our eggs in this basket. We need the old ways as well.