“Space is big, You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” So advises The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a book much beloved by men of a certain age, and it’s a comment that could just as well apply to cyberspace.
Calling it anything in the singular seems an overly optimistic terminological bounding. Referring to it as ‘cyber’, as political and military types are wont to do, is an absurdly curt moniker for something that acts through global networks rather than even constituting a thing in and of itself. ‘Cyber’ is a big field though, and where one’s proclivities lie dictates how one reacts to issues of concern.
For example, Bruce Carleton of USCYBERCOM Watch wrote of recent happenings in his chosen field (the clue’s in the title of his blog), “This week was pretty quiet.” By comparison, Steven Bucci of Security Debrief, an industry blog, wrote of a “Wild Week in the World of Cyber”! Both know of which they speak but it does depend where you shine your light in ‘cyber’ whether you find much of note.
It’s not only what you find, but what you want people to see. Two recent stories show how differently cybersecurity-as-national-security is being played out in Whitehall and Washington, for example.
Yesterday, The Register published details of an horizon-scanning document prepared by the Cyber Security Operations Centre (CSOC) for the Cabinet Office. CSOC is one of the two new units called for in last June’s Cyber Security Strategy, and is based at GCHQ in Cheltenham. It is due to become fully operational next month and will gather and disseminate intelligence on network threats to national security and industry partners. In the document, CSOC notes that a “successful cyber attack against public services would have a catastrophic impact on public confidence in the government, even if the actual damage caused by the attack were minimal.” Part of the preliminary work of CSOC, and of the Office of Cyber Security to which it reports, is to determine how best to develop appropriate policies and strategies to combat cyber threats, not least of which is how to relate to the public and media. Discussions are behind closed doors and, whilst opposition politicians decry their apparent silence, they have actually been very busy considering how best to handle the public aspects of cybersecurity.*
Meanwhile, in the US, and trailed here last week, prominent securocrats have taken it upon themselves to engage in a CNN-sponsored exercise, Cyber ShockWave, intended precisely to do what CSOC rightly concludes a real cyber attack might do, i.e. spook the public. Indeed, former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, who acted as presidential adviser during the simulation, was reported in the Washington Post as follows:
[Lockhart] said it was immaterial whether the attack was an act of war; it had “the effect” of an act of war… Lockhart said that people would be scared by the simulation but that “that’s a good thing.” Only then, he said, would Congress act.
The results of the simulation – that the US is unprepared for a major sci-fi cyber scenario – were never in doubt. If such a televised exercise were carried out in the UK it would be interpreted as a very political attempt to exert pressure on the administration and critiqued on that basis, as would its War of the Worlds tone, replete with Wolf Blitzer moderating the action from the White House National Security Council control room. I don’t think non-US viewers can see the program online from CNN but YouTube is your friend, and it can also be seen in full here. Oddly, it was accompanied by a banner saying, “This Program Is A Simulated Exercise”. Surely, that should be “This Program Is About A Simulated Exercise”?
All this is to say that cybersecurity as an element of national security and a subject of political concern seem to be playing out very differently in the US and its main European ally. Whereas the UK is cautious in projecting concern into the public domain, some elements of the US hierarchy seem very determined to make this a public issue of the highest priority. The discourse is different, and is being mediated in starkly contrasting manner.
*Disclaimer: I attended an OCS workshop in January 2010.