The Crisis of the Internet

Last Wednesday, January 30, 2013, The New York Times announced that after nearly four months of target attacks, Chinese hackers succeeded in acquiring passwords and usernames of every Times employee and nearly 53 percent of personal computers, according to The Daily Beast.

The official newspaper of China’s Communist Party denies any and all claims of hacking U.S. Media Outlets, but according to The New York Times, the attacks were triggered by an investigation into the source of Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao’s immense wealth.

“Even those with little understanding of the Internet know that hacking attacks are transnational and concealable,” the front page of The People’s Daily, a Chinese Language newspaper said, according to an AFP (Agence France-Presse), which is a global news agency.

Just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, let’s assume some type of breach may have occurred. If so, how? How is it possible to bypass the security of one of the largest media outlets in America? Although hacking has become more prominent and advanced in recent years, it follows a basic process of installing malware, crippling the network, and collecting as much information as possible.

In this case, according to The New York Times, Chinese hackers first attempted to veil the attacks as coming from within the United States itself by infiltrating computers at universities and then proceeded to attack their targets. Then, they installed malicious software to bypass The Time’s network. According to experts, Chinese hackers have used these tactics in the past to attack United States military contractors. The intrusion probably started with an email to a Times employee with a link to a hostile site.  Employee clicks on the site and a malicious payload is downloaded to that PC.  This is called phishing.  Once inside, the hacker can then move laterally through the Times network.

“The attacks appear to be part of a broader computer espionage campaign against American news media companies that have reported on Chinese leaders and corporations,” The New York Times reported.

The overarching theme of this attack gets at the root of the many problems with the Internet. The Internet, as we conceive of it, is free. It is a network of networks with no central point of power, which is supposed to equalize access and even out hierarchies. In essence, anyone with a mouse and a server can become an Internet sensation, any video can be uploaded, and every news story has the added benefit of multiple perspectives.

However, this ideal is not a reality. It is marred by the guiding principle in every physics class that an object is only as strong as its weakest point. The Internet’s unparalleled openness and lack of central authority is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It means both that there is a potential for a cooperative, free, and transparent medium and also that there is no one set of protocols or ideals that govern how the Internet can work and to what extent, so competing interests will fight to control it. This fight for control and ownership is exactly what this recent hacking scandal and every scandal that has come before it – from Twitter hacking to the hacking of Bank of America – has brought to the surface.

While the United States and other Western nations see an Internet plagued with home videos, soft news, and bloggers run amuck, the Internet in China looks very different from the Internet in the western world. In order to run a server in China, the Chinese government must grant permission and give you a license to practice. Although there is technically no centralized power, the Chinese government can block any content it wants by finding choke points.

Additionally, not all companies have the same starting line and those that the government does not favor can have significantly slower servers. However, China is not the only nation who places restrictions on its Internet. India, Cuba, Burma, and Saudi Arabia all have similar boundaries. While the United States may have implicit boundaries such as advertisement, ratings, and management, those other countries make the implicit, explicit. Essentially, neither picture illustrates a free Internet; this idea does not exist, at least not yet. Similarly, the Chinese armed forces have one of the largest cyber war armies in the world.  Their motives are different from the standard hackers whose motive is theft for profit.

The differences between our two systems of Internet “regulation” center around the opposing ideals about control of the Internet, which are epitomized in the recent New York Times hacking because it exposes the anxieties surrounding freedom of speech and freedom, in general.

Cyberstrikes are becoming the new form of warfare, which although less brutal and violent, have greater potential to cripple a nation. The evolution of warfare as it changes tact means the United States must decide how to confront the attacks, working both on the defensive and the offensive.

Just after the news broke about The New York Times hacking, a legal review concluded that President Obama may use cyberstrikes on the Iranian nuclear facilities if there is credible evidence that portends a digital attack, which begs the question: would the New York Times hacking be considered enough credible evidence to allow the United States to begin cyberattacks on China? With this legal review, cyberattacks can now be issued in almost the same vain as an executive order. With this announcement, the Internet has been solidified into national security plans, which was both unprecedented and inevitable.

All of this, of course, is not news. Cyberwarfare is not new. In fact, the first mainframe computer, ENIAC, created in 1946 was funded by the War Department after World War II. By this admission, the first computer was intended as a protector of national security. From the beginning, the computer and the Internet and World Wide Web, which would come after it, was framed as a defensive strategy, outlining the aggressors and the victims pre-emptively.

Moreover, dilemmas over freedom of speech are not new. To the contrary, these dilemmas are as old as time itself, expressed everywhere from the anxieties that major news organizations only represent the interests of the hegemonic, dominant class all the way to the pervasive fears of communism and anarchy during the Cold War.

We live in perpetual fear that our words will be limited. We express these fears in copyright laws, analysis, and re-analysis of our founding documents as we painstakingly wonder what our Founding Father’s true intentions were when they drafted the Bill of Rights. The ambiguity of it all is frustrating, but necessary if it is to remain a timeless symbol of democracy.

However, what is new is the realization that the notion of having secrets has disappeared. The fear of regimentation and loss of identity are as pervasive today as they were when everyone was given an arbitrary number called a Social Security number during the New Deal. I’d argue, these fears are even more pronounced in the digital age and exacerbated by news of hacking.

Just as Julian Assange pioneered a campaign for complete governmental transparency with WikiLeaks, there is always a struggle between radical anarchy and government control. What we must learn from the recent hacking of The New York Times, though, is that those two forms of governance are not oppositional to each other. They are merely the ebb and flow of a fluid wave chart, which is constantly oscillating.  Therefore, the best solution I can conceive from this analogy is a flat line, a happy medium of constant cooperation and agreement, but if I’m honest with myself, where’s the fun in that?

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