SINOGRAPH Internet lessons to learn
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - The whole issue of cyber security exploded in recent days in Europe, as news of America wiretapping its European allies has huge and multi-faceted implications for global safety and development. There are roughly three interrelated aspects to it, and China, although not part of the present scandal, is part of it. (See also Common folk aren't US's cyber-targets, Asia Times Online, June 18, 2013.)
Cyber-spying has become the main instrument to steal not only political confidences but also technological and scientific secrets. For a developing country like China with growing cyber capabilities, cyber infiltrations abroad can be a very important instrument to improve its own industry, which is currently strained by sanctions forbidding the export of sensitive technologies.
These technologies may also have dual uses for civilian and military purposes. However, the theft of these tools, although it
may help Chinese science leapfrog in its progress, hooks Chinese technologies to the model of the advanced countries. De facto, it may blunt China's indigenous and original scientific advance, as it is easier to try to steal secrets from abroad than to foster homegrown research.
In a way, the same pattern took place with computers when pirating software and hardware technologies from America hooked Chinese improvement to that of America. In the same way, by having its technologies stolen in China, America, the leading country in many fields, can impose its own model on China or even "leak" (let Beijing cyber-steal wrong parts) faulty technologies to China, which may lead Chinese astray.
However, there is a bigger issue in cyber security. All countries have a greater ability to attack than to defend their own turfs. That is, if China is able to breach American or European cyber secrets, it is most likely also very weak in defending its own secrets. This may not be too important, because China does not have many scientific secrets to be stolen compared to America or Europe. Overall, the Chinese political and social system is weaker than America's. This reveals a deep weakness of a system that is more rigid and therefore able to be shaken by attacks by foreign cyber forces. Conversely, America may have more secrets to be stolen, but its social and political system is much more resilient to attack.
In any event, these elements create the necessity for a system guaranteeing to some extent a common defense between large countries (see also Joseph DeTrani's Cyberspace: a global threat to peace, Asia Times Online, October 28, 2013). An agreement establishing some common security protocols in cyberspace may also help dampen mutual hostility. In a similar fashion, agreements on nuclear detente helped to keep at bay the prospect of atomic conflict during the Cold War. This is a much bigger issue with much wider implications than concerns about China's blue-water navy or friction with Japan on the Senkaku islands.
Recent developments in Europe moreover put a new spin on cyber security. Washington denied France's allegation that 700 million French phone calls were intercepted by the US National Security Agency in the course of a single month. But the alleged number itself weighs heavily on ties between two friendly countries, the US and France. Accusations that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's own cell phone was tapped by the US have created a huge uproar around the world.
This debate, in any event, is redrawing the rules of spying and friendship. Europe has not simply rebelled against US spying, nor has it taken for granted that another country spies on a friend. That means that spying and friendship can go together and spying does not always mean hostility.
In a way, we are coming to grips with the idea of spying on friends as a way to gauge the level of friendship and avoid betrayal. This is a common concept in human relationships; husbands and wives may keep an eye on each other in order to maintain their marriage. In fact, some kind of infidelity discovered at an early stage may mend the marriage and the marriage can keep developing. Of course excessive jealousy (that is, excessive spying) may derail a relationship even without any actual betrayal.
That proves also another point. Protocols on cyber interference may be necessary not only between countries competitive with one another, like US and China, but also between allies whose excessive interest or lack of interest (that is, spying) in one another may actually derail a healthy relationship.
However, there is a third element that perhaps requires greater agreement on cyber activity - not one between competitive or friendly states, but between states and common people. This element is upsetting public opinion in democratic and authoritarian countries, where people feel they are losing all their privacy with ever prying state.
The activities of common people on the Internet may be totally monitored by states for lofty ideals of counter-terrorism, and the event of 9/11 proves the necessity of governments checking on the Internet, which has become the main instrument for planning and organizing terrorist attacks. However, once governments have the power to tap into any individual life, it is hard to govern how this power will be used, and this is true not only of authoritative countries, where the government has no checks and balances, but may also be true of freer governments such as those of the United States or European countries.
It is hard to strike a balance between national security and the legitimate right to privacy for common people. One modest suggestion, however, is that because of the implications for national security surrounding it, the Internet has long grown out of being a simple toy into being almost a weapon of mass destruction, as many have said - and you do not want children close to weapons, let alone weapons of mass destruction.
Children, in fact, have grown accustomed to posting their entire lives online almost since birth. There are no longer family secrets, and in fact, there is no privacy at all. For this reason, maybe children should not be allowed to use the Internet, or there should be strict rules limiting what they can access or can post.
Children do not realize the importance of keeping some facts within the family. And by posting all their preferences and history on the Internet, they may one day be hostages not only of governments, which are anyway restricted by national security interests, but also of companies eager to use all the knowledge they gather to sell them specific goods or even political ideas.
In this situation, the people of China, Europe, or America may all face the same risks. And governments now may use large and effective internet companies like Google or Baidu, Twitter or Weibo, Facebook or Xiaonei to gather politically sensitive information. On the other hand, these companies, by influencing people in their own ways, may get new and unprecedented clout with governments for their own commercial or political purposes.
The influence of new media is of a very different order from that exerted by newspapers and the old media. Newspapers may advocate this or that idea based on some vague perception of people's preferences and on some lofty ideals of a country's destiny. New media, like Google or Facebook can tailor political goals based on exact knowledge of people's preferences, with the goal of advancing some more limited company's interests, as industrial and communication goals are more tightly bond in new media.
This is a new ball game for everybody, in both democratic and authoritarian governments. In this, there are certainly many political considerations, but in order to guarantee greater freedom of opinion to common people, it should be extremely important, if not mandatory, soon to consider strict new regulations on access to the Internet for children.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org