Military and intelligence professionals around the world view cyberspace differently. In the West, it is thought of as a facilitating factor that can be leverage for espionage, disruption, and sabotage. In China and Russia, where the priority is the ruling regimes continuing hold on power, cyberspace is thought of as a mode of internal subjugation and external influence – where information control, not data integrity, is the currency of state power.
The Cipher Brief’s Levi Maxey spoke with Alexander Klimburg, the Director of the Cyber Policy and Resilience Program at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, about the direction cyber conflict is taking, and why Western countries should not be baited into a cyber-enabled information war against adversaries that would seek to interfere in democratic elections by sowing fear, confusion, and disinformation.
The Cipher Brief: What are some of the different ways military professionals view the internet?
Alexander Klimburg: If you look at it from a military point of view, there are those who consider the rise of cyberspace to be an equivalent to the introduction of the airplane in terms of its effect on warfare. It adds an additional factor on the battlefield, but it doesn’t really change the battlefield per se. I call those incrementalists.
Then there are the gradualists, who consider the rise of cyberspace as adding a whole new factor to the art of war, just as gunpowder did. It is a slow moving paradigm change that will take decades or centuries to fully come to fruition.
Then finally, there’s the group that I call the radicals. They see cyberspace as being equal to the invention of the wheel – an absolutely transformative invention that has very little precedent in human history.
Most importantly, this radical invention – whether it is the wheel or cyberspace – has more to do with how the invention will be transformed to apply to warfare. For example, in the case of the wheel, it was originally only used for pottery, not for maneuver warfare. My concern is that the internet is going in a similar direction. We are moving from a civilian-oriented internet towards something that is more defined by military and security concerns.
TCB: Russia looks at the internet differently than the United States does in regards to how they project power through cyberspace. How do differing perspectives from various countries play into these three distinctions?
Klimburg: In the West, the internet is undeniably a bottom-up development – it was built by civil society, the private sector, and government together – a multi-stake holder approach.
Now the Russian and Chinese view of the internet is, however, different, and this is historical. The internet from the Russian point of view is a top-down affair. They sought it primarily as a means of controlling production, but also as a matter of controlling information. So for the Russians and the Chinese, who share this view, the point of the internet is primarily about control.
They have a problem with the idea of a bottom-up internet basically construed of many different actors that don’t necessarily fall into easy categorizations or under some type of specific government control. They think such a powerful tool can only have one purpose, which is to further the security and the stability of the state, and therefore government’s should have a defining interest in how this instrument is used.
Therefore, we have a major split in international diplomacy, between the Western like-minded liberal democratic group, which I call the free internet faction, and the Chinese-Russian – but also many Arab authoritarian states – which I call a cyber sovereignty faction, who are mostly interested in trying to find a way to govern the internet with an international governmental body that they can influence. The end game is to be able to control information completely within their borders. This is to effectively insure that their biggest concern – namely social instability, and in particular, challenges to their regime – will not occur.
TCB: China and Russia might push the sovereignty angle to control information domestically, but are unwilling to acknowledge that international law applies to the digital domain, specifically regarding sovereignty leading to the right to self-defense used to deter adversaries in cyberspace. Do countries prefer some interpretations of digital sovereignty but not others?
Klimburg: Absolutely. There are a number of contradictions that are inherent to how countries very often construe their interests in cyberspace. All governments, including Western governments, are often harming their own self-interests by how they pursue their interests in cyberspace.
The Western approach is that international law applies equally to cyberspace. The Chinese and Russians, however, are trying to show that cyberspace is altogether different. Going back to my original distinctions, they would be the radicals – seeing cyberspace as something profoundly new and powerful.
What they really want to do is have the ability to weaponize information. Some people are worried about the militarization of cyberspace, but I’m worried about the weaponization of information – the ability to effectively declare that not only is a cyber attack a technical activity, but it’s also a psychological activity. That information warfare – effectively saying bad things about somebody in a propaganda context – is the same as turning the lights off.
Here, we can quickly get into the domain where words and information are effectively considered to be weapons – the BBC is like a battle cruiser and CNN is like an aircraft carrier. The media effectively become weapons that are only wielded by government. Everything becomes subject to government control and influence, and in that world, there is no such thing as free speech.
TCB: So will activities such as Russian interference in Western elections simply become a normal factor of everyday politics?
Klimburg: There are two different nightmares in play here. In the West, we consider the worst cyber outcome to be something like cyber war, with the critical infrastructure being completely crashed. From the Russian-Chinese point of view, the worst possible outcome, however, is that their regime falls to an uprising. This type of worst possible outcome is based on their understanding of cyberspace as being considered a psychological tool as part of information warfare. They really believe that information warfare is ongoing, that it is constant, and that they are directly threatened by it.
If we, meaning the West, consider both of these two views to be equal, then what we would do in response is effectively allow the weaponization of information. We would basically say that yes, you have a point that should effectively be allowed to occur, and you know what, let’s make an agreement to basically control each other’s media while we’re at it. We are moving into an area where we would allow all types of content to be considered potential weapons, and therefore there can actually effectively be no free speech. That’s very dangerous ground to go into.
The information warfare activities that we’ve experienced in the West cannot be met in equal measure. In cyber war context – where we talk about lights going off and weapons flying – you can theoretically retaliate equally, or perhaps use other means to deter an attacker by simply saying, “if you cyber bomb us, we will cyber bomb you.” We can’t do that, however, with information warfare activities, because that would just basically further the narrative for the side that seeks control over global information.
Instead, the only defense is resilience, as Europe has shown. Let’s look at the evidence. There were consistent information warfare attacks that were launched against large parts of Europe that were a lot less successful than they were against the United States – in countries like Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Germany, and most recently, France. Some of these countries have had information warfare campaigns launched against them for years, and these were much more intense then those launched against the U.S. during the 2016 election. Nonetheless, the U.S. has certainly suffered quite a bit, and it’s possible the election itself was swayed by these efforts.
Why did it not have this effect in Europe? The answer is obvious: the U.S. was a weak target. There was already a clear lack of trust in American political institutions, in the media, and there was also a propensity to believe in what people are now calling “fake news” and similar types of propaganda information. The U.S. is much more susceptible to these types of campaigns than many European nations. What can be done to counter this? The only way to deal with this is to improve national resilience. Do not attempt certain retaliation. The U.S. can retaliate in a cyber war context but should not retaliate in an information war context.
In a democracy, we understand how powerful and dangerous propaganda can be. There has been an understanding in the United States from the 1950s onwards, with a number of laws like the Smith-Mundt Act existing to protect the U.S. population from inadvertently becoming targeted by it’s own black propaganda. So, when the CIA does propaganda operations abroad, it has to be very controlled and limited, and there has to be very little chance that the U.S. public – the U.S. voter – will be subjected to it, because they understand how dangerous this is.
Of course these protections sometimes fail. The U.S. in particular, but also other countries, do engage in covert influencing campaigns, but these are largely targeted, and in the case of the U.S., highly specific to an individual. Basically, the U.S. can lie to an individual but can’t really do that to a large group of people, and it definitely can’t do it to a population when it means that there’s a chance that the U.S. population can be inadvertently influenced by it.
Those rules are quiet strong because the whole idea of instrumentalizing media outlets into weapons of war is absolutely against the interests of democracies. Russia and China don’t believe that’s the case, because they don’t fundamentally believe that civil society exists as an entity. They think that civil society is the battlefield between the capitalists and the government – not an independent actor. This is why they also think that many of the pro-democracy revolutions from the late 1990s and onwards – Serbia, Ukraine, the Arab Spring, etc. – were actually the direct result of U.S. intelligence influence campaigns.
Russia in particular thinks that we are in a state of information warfare. I, however, think we are not. If we actually were, then these governments, both Russian and Chinese, wouldn’t stand a chance in hell – their governments would quickly crumble. This is an example of how Chinese and Russians are not really pursuing their own interests here, because if they really wanted to push the West into an information war – a full-scale propaganda confrontation where it is effectively the virtues of a liberal democracy against their systems – they don’t stand a chance.
Once we start talking about what is good information, what is bad information, then we’re entering into this controlled information space that is absolutely hostile to democracy. If the internet shifts it’s purpose to one where information warfare is considered the new normal, then everything we say, our social media postings, our emails, the activities of our kids – everything that we do – is going to be subject to government control.
We cannot support information warfare as the new normal by engaging in it or sanctioning this type of approach. If we go down that road, we have no room for democracy anymore.