Barbarians at the Gate

By Cornish, Paul | The World Today, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Barbarians at the Gate


Cornish, Paul, The World Today


Over the last decade, the study of security has been affected by two revolutions: the ending of the Cold War in Europe; and the growth of the internet. The first removed the adversarial rationale which had underpinned defence and security thinking and practice since 1945. The physical manifestations of the Cold War massive military research and development projects, conscript armies, vast surface and submarine fleets - all became obsolete in an instant. Defence would now be but one item in a new agenda which would include human, environmental and economic security. Defence institutions and the defence mind-set have been shaped by this political revolution, but have so far not been overwhelmed by it. The internet revolution, however, represents an altogether greater, more fundamental challenge; this, at least, is the claim of the revolutionaries.

THE IDEA OF THE INTERNET originated in 1969 in the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's ARPANET. Major universities and military research and development sites were brought into a communications network designed to survive, and work around, a nuclear attack. Commercial uses for the new communications technology soon became apparent, and through various steps the net developed; a model of spin-off from military to civil research and development.

The past decade or so has seen the rapid growth of the internet into a world-wide, individually accessible communications network. The argument of the internet revolutionaries is that national and international politics are in the midst, not of an evolutionary phase, but of a fundamental re-ordering; the internet is not merely affecting politics, it is consuming politics.

In the realm of defence and security, the internet revolution, represented by the Revolution in Military Affairs, and the System of Systems, augurs - according to D. Hart writing in The Times, 10 August 2000 - `profound changes in military affairs, as profound as the advent of the aeroplane or the nuclear weapon: But that revolution also claims to challenge the fundamental precepts upon which security thinking and practice have been built: the ideas of sovereignty, territory and nationality.

INTERNET THREAT

In traditional military analysis, any threat worthy of the label requires an adversary to possess a hostile intention and capability, which are both communicable and credible. How might states be threatened by the internet?

One set of scenarios ranges from the mere e-nuisance to domestic criminal use of the internet, to political subversion and destabilisation of industrial relations, to `denial of service' attacks on civil infrastructure and the actions of single-- issue hacktivists and una-terrorists.

Other nightmares include international terrorist use of information for propaganda and target identification, the acquisition by `states of concerns of highly sensitive military and commercial technology, and the vulnerability of governments to foreign hacking. In 1999, the US Department of Defense detected over twenty-two thousand attempts to break into its computer systems. The intentions of the intruders are diverse, ranging from the mischievous to the malicious to the subversive.

In some scenarios, the internet comes close to being a capability in its own right. But in others, it is merely the latest means to enable an adversary to communicate a threat more effectively and credibly. We should hardly be surprised that the net scores highly as a communicator, so highly indeed that where threat analysis is concerned, message and medium increasingly overlap.

EXPOSED

But what of credibility; why is the message received, and the medium respected, so readily? For some, the `threat of the internet' is a diversion, masking the discomfort of governments, armed forces and defence manufacturers confronted by the general lack of credibile large-scale threats to states after the end of the Cold War. …

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