On the Eve of Cold War II

26.04.2001

Computer networks are feeding a new Cold War mentality

It's an irony of history that while George Bush Sr. oversaw the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, his son, George W. Bush Jr., is on the threshold of overseeing the start of a second Cold War. And like its predecessor, we can expect it to last a long time. Moreover, the decreased sense of personal security and the restriction of individual liberty which accompanies such conflicts -- be they cold or hot -- will likewise be a part of our lives for a while.

Although the incident which brought the present state of affairs to the fore -- the collision of an American spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet -- is recent, the foundations of the Second Cold War has long been in place. Indeed, some would argue that the original Cold War did not end, and that present tensions are merely an extension of this conflict, one which is slowly coming out of hibernation.

In many ways, the past ten years have been a difficult one for the US. Policy makers have been busy trying to properly focusing on who the "enemy" really is in a post Cold War world. At the same time, it has been a challenge to convince the home population of the continued need to maintain large military expenditures. This is because America's industrial-military complex is based on a conceptual framework of perpetual war for perpetual peace. Hence, the demise of the Soviet Union did not spell an end to this framework, but merely a realignment of its strategic objectives.

Although present tensions between the US and China may eventually ease, what the spy plane incident nevertheless demonstrated is how the US is already on a war-footing, and that it's ready to quickly adapt to circumstances. The mass media in the US is a case in point. All media outlets in the US adopted the same line regarding the incident. In addition to this, they were crucial in setting the tone for the demonizing rhetoric against China.

For example, in an April 15th interview with two American servicemen on Meet the Press, host Tim Russert went at great lengths to introduce the notion that China "threatened" the crew, even though the two servicemen were reluctant to revert to such strong language. This notion was based on reports that the crew might go on trial in China after an investigation into the incident was completed.

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The line of questioning which produced this "fact" merely followed the tone Russert wanted to set: that is, the Chinese authorities were aggressive. But it was not an easy job. Throughout the interview, Russert's plans were being foiled. When he tried to establish that the crew were "interrogated" while in custody, the two servicemen were clearly uneasy at the use of the term, and preferred to say that they were "questioned" (meanwhile, the crew were not "interrogated" or "questioned" by US authorities upon their release but "debriefed"). To make matters worse for Russert, the servicemen conceded to not being mistreated by their "captors".

Even more apparent than this, is how the military has evolved into a hallowed institution in the US since the end of the Vietnam War. No-one dares to question why "surveillance" is necessary; it's accepted as a simple matter of fact, that there is a need on the part of the US to spy against "enemies" even though China has not been formerly identified as one (at least not yet).

While there are many similarities between the Cold War of the days of Bush Sr. and that of his son, there is one main difference: in the past, concern over the Cold War heating up was on the use of nuclear weapons; nowadays, it's on the crashing of computer networks.

This fear is plain to see in the US. As in the heyday of McCarthyism when the paranoia was about a communist hiding under every bed, in digital age America it is "cyber-terrorism"; that is, there is a hacker lurking behind every IP address. The "threat" is considered real enough that President Bush Jr. has made a point of earmarking more money to combat it. Meanwhile, security experts continue to warn that computer networks in the US are full of holes that cannot be repaired.

The establishment of anti-US sites in wake of the spy plane incident further justifies this fear. In retaliation for the death of the pilot killed in the incident, some Chinese sites have started a "Hack the USA" movement pointing out vulnerable targets and offering information and help to get the job done. These include KillUSA and SOHU.

The fear over cyber-terrorism driving American insularity and paranoia is misplaced, however. The premise for "cyber-terrorism" is that an attack would harm "extremely sensitive" data that couldn't be quickly replaced and would have far-reaching effects. What is more, it would encompass multiple strikes and would be so devastating that it would cause infrastructure to shut down.

One would have to wonder why major infrastructure or "extremely sensitive" data would be on the public Internet in the first place, rather than private intranets. Not only this, if you really want to attack the US you would hit the country where it hurts most: in the pocket. Spoiling e-commerce is all you need: no need to worry about the military, utilities, transport, etc ...; just crash the stock market and you have brought America (and most of the western world) to its knees.

The hacktivism that goes on is obviously less inclined to go after huge infrastructure, or even extremely sensitive data for that matter. What is more, the most disruptive attacks to date, such as last year's DoS attacks and the "I Love You" worm were the work of script kiddies; in other words, they were the result of new forms of juvenile delinquency as opposed to the rise of cyber-terrorism.

Still, most analysts believe that hacking is a viable weapon. As a result, laws are being passed which infringe on fundamental rights and civil liberties for the sake of "national security" (the UK's cyber-terrorism bill being a case in point). Not only this, e-commerce has been elevated to such importance that to negatively affect it in any way is considered to be a terrorist act.

Thus, far from the promise of promoting social discourse and bringing the world together as a global village, computer networks are feeding a new Cold War mentality, one which threatens to fragment them into disjointed spheres of influence.

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