SOTU: Cyber What?

In last night’s State of the Union Address, President Obama briefly reiterated the point that Congress has an obligation to pass some sort of legislation that would enable cybersecurity to protect “our networks”, our intellectual property and “our kids.” The proposal appears to be a reiteration that companies share more information with the government in real time about hacks they are suffering. Yet, there is something a bit odd about the President Obama’s cybersecurity call to arms: the Sony hack.

The public attention given over to the Sony hack, from the embarrassing emails about movie stars, to the almost immediate claims from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that the attack came from North Korea, to the handwringing over what kind of “proportional” response to launch against the Kim regime, we have watched the cybersecurity soap opera unfold. In what appears as the finale, we now have reports that the National Security Agency (NSA) watched the attack unfold, and that it was really the NSA’s evidence and not that of the FBI that supported President Obama’s certainty that North Korea, and not some disgruntled Sony employee, was behind the attack. Where does this leave us with the SOTU?

First, if we believe that the NSA watched the Sony attack unfold—and did not warn Sony—then no amount of information sharing from Sony would have mattered.   Sony was de facto sharing information with the government whether they permitted it or not. This raises concerns about the extent to which monitoring foreign attacks violates the privacy rights of individuals and corporations.   Was the NSA watching traffic, or was it inside Sony networks too?

Second, the NSA did not stop the attack from happening. Rather, it and the Obama administration let the political drama unfold, and took the opportunity to issue a “proportionate” response through targeted sanctions against some of the ruling North Korean elite. The sanctions are merely additions to already sanctioned agencies and individuals, and so functionally, they are little more than show.   The only sense that I can make of this is that the administration desired to signal publicly to the Kim regime and all other potential cyber attackers that the US will respond to attacks in some manner. This supports Erik Gartzke’s argument that states do not require 100% certainty about who launched an attack to retaliate. If states punish the “right” actor, then all the better, if they do not, then they still send a deterrent signal to those watching. However, if this is so, it is immediately apparent that Sony was scarified to the cyber-foreign-policy gods, and there was a different cost-benefit calculation going on in the White House.

Finally, let’s get back to the Sony hack and the SOTU address. If the US was taking the Sony hack as an opportunity in deterrence, then this means that it allowed Sony to suffer a series of attacks and did nothing to protect them. If this is the case, then the notion that we need more information sharing with the government may be false.   What the government wants is really more permission, more consent, from the companies it is already watching. Protecting the citizens and corporations of the US requires a delicate balance between privacy and security. However, attempting to corrupt ways of maintaining security, such as outlawing encryption only makes citizens and corporations more unsafe and insecure. If the US government really wants to protect the “kids” from cyber criminals, then they should equip those kids with the strongest encryption there is, and teach good cyber practices.


An odd state of union

I actually did watch the SOTU on Tuesday, in part because there was nothing else on television, and in part because I figured it might be a good topic to discuss in class. Wednesday night I was the substitute teacher for a colleague’s graduate seminar on the Domestic Sources of US Foreign Policy. We ended up talking about the ideals that put the “American” in American Foreign Policy, and the assigned reading for the day was Samuel Huntington’s 1982 article “American Ideals versus American Institutions.” We put Huntington’s article here for two reasons: First, its great for generating discussion an debate. Second, it is great for caputuring the key elements of the “American Creed” of liberty, democracy, and equality that define America’s sense of self, expectations for government, and desires for the rest of the world.

The juxtaposition of the two is telling.

Huntington writes:

Historically Americans have generally believed in the universal validity of their values. At the end of World War II, when Americans forced Germany and Japan to be free, they did not stop to ask if liberty and democracy were what the German and Japanese people wanted. Americans implicitly assumed that their values were valid and applicable and that they would at the very least be morally negligent if they did not insist that Germany and Japan adopt political institutions reflecting those values. Belief in the universal validity of those values obviously reinforces and reflects those hypocritical elements of the American tradition that stress the United States’s role as a redeemer nation and lead it to attempt to impose its values and often its institutions on other societies.

As Bush framed the war in Iraq in an attempt to muster Congressional and Public aquiessence for the new “surge” policy, he invoked that very theme:

This war is more than a clash of arms. It is a decisive ideological struggle, and the security of our nation is in the balance.
To prevail, we must remove the conditions that inspire blind hatred and drove 19 men to get onto airplanes and to come and kill us.
What every terrorist fears most is human freedom — societies where men and women make their own choices, answer to their own conscience and live by their hopes instead of their resentments.
Free people are not drawn to violent and malignant ideologies, and most will choose a better way when they’re given a chance.
So we advance our own security interests by helping moderates, reformers and brave voices for democracy.
The great question of our day is whether America will help men and women in the Middle East to build free societies and share in the rights of all humanity. And I say, for the sake of our own security: We must.

The goal of this struggle:

Our goal is a democratic Iraq that upholds the rule of law, respects the rights of its people, provides them security and is an ally in the war on terror.

He couldn’t have put this any other way.

Huntington seems to caution against what many critics of the Bush Administration have identified as undermining core American values in the name of the War on Terror–Gitmo, wiretapping, and whatnot.

The continued existence of the United States means that Americans will continue to suffer from cognitive dissonance. They will continue to attempt to come to terms with that dissonance through some combination of moralism, cynicism, complacency, and hypocrisy. The greatest danger to the gap between ideals and institutions would come when any substantial portion of the American population
carried to an extreme any one of these responses. An excess of moralism, hypocrisy, cynicism, or complacency could destroy the American system. A totally complacent toleration of the ideals -versus-institutions gap could lead to the corruption and decay of American liberal-democratic institutions. Uncritical hypocrisy, blind to the existence of the gap and fervent in its commitment to American principles, could lead to imperialistic expansion, ending in either military or political disaster abroad or the undermining of democracy at home. Cynical acceptance of the gap could lead to a gradual abandonment of American ideals and their replacement either by a Thrasymachusian might-makes-right morality or by some other set of political beliefs. Finally, intense moralism could lead Americans to destroy the freest institutions on earth because they believed they deserved something better.

While it feels somewhat odd to deploy Huntington in this manner, especially given how his later Clash of Civilizations work becomes so instramental in discourse of the War on terror, there is a certain resonance to it. If nothing else, it certainly made for a good class discussion.


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