Is a Reverse Soviet Collapse in the Offing for the West?
Quite some time ago while I was in college (a more distant period ago than I’d like to admit), a very smart friend talked to me after several beers how he was approaching the CIA with a grand strategy to undermine the Soviet Union. His plan went something like this.
“You know how paranoid the Russians are, right? And while their military is strong, their economy cannot compete with a capitalist society. What if we built up our military, with actual capability and pursuing extreme technological advances, and we simply forced the Soviets to spend themselves into bankruptcy?”
A short few years later, I reflected on the Star Wars initiative (Strategic Defense Initiative – SDI), and all the military buildup under the Reagan Administration; and, of course, the subsequent collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Union. I wondered: “Did this guy actually get his plan to the CIA?”
The fundamental aspects of this strategy were: 1) a play upon Soviet paranoia, and 2) leveraging the strategic advantages of capitalism.
Is a Communist or Totalitarian System Preferable in the Internet Age?
In the West, we tout the openness of the Internet. Many attribute the Internet as playing a major part in the Arab Spring. The Internet fundamentally connects! Anyone online has access to anything (save, of course, those behind the Great Wall of China, and similar places that restrict the Internet). The dark underbelly of the Internet, however, is that all this connectivity allows bad actors to connect to any target he desires. Hence we have cybercrime, hacktivism, state actor threats, online economic espionage, and the convergence of narco-terrorism and cybercrime.
Today, these threats are posing a grave threat to the security of the West and its economic competitiveness. Why spend billions in R&D for the Joint Strike Fighter or space technology, or any other valuable technology or know how, if it’s simply easier to steal it through the Internet?
As many are writing, including two articles this week, a new approach is needed to defend against attacks that represent the “greatest transfer of wealth in history”, according the General Keith Alexander. The challenge in a Western society, or perhaps more appropriately described as societies that embrace capitalism, is that the government respects private property. True, regulation is permitted, but absent crime or a national security interest, it is generally true that governments do not engage in the protection of business networks. Moreover, many businesses, regardless of the extreme technology they might be developing, may not have the resources to defend against certain attackers. We all need exquisite security in the modern Internet Era, but few can afford it.
Conversely, communist or totalitarian systems of government own the business community. These governments lack the constraints that exist in Western society. Indeed, the Great Wall of China is a great example. The West cannot establish a similar prophylactic protection scheme.
Today, I’m having a coffee rather than a beer, but I reflect back on that strategy about undermining the Soviet Union and can’t help but wonder: “Have the Chinese figured out a grand strategy that will undermine our competitiveness?” Are we at risk of having a prime feature of our society used against us (separation of industry and government), much like the seeds of destruction of the Soviet Union were sown from inside their societal model?
So What of the Public-Private Partnership?
If situational awareness and aggregate readiness levels across a nation’s footprint is the answer, as I wrote earlier this week along with a similar article from a colleague from The Netherlands, a mechanism is needed that addresses the “challenge of the two distinct spheres” I noted above (i.e., industry and government have legal constraints against robust and timely information sharing). If the Chinese, and others, can target the gap between industry and government, the gap must be closed. But, how can that be accomplished if industry has proprietary information, trade secrets, brand protection, and other incentives to withhold information from government? How can government – at least the Federal Government in the US – share information that would likely give a competitive advantage to select recipients (an anti-competitiveness practice)? And what about classified information, “law enforcement sensitive”, and other information sharing constraints?
The Public-Private Partnership for cybersecurity needs greater study, piloting, and maturing. Frameworks for information sharing are needed. These frameworks must address the fundamental cultural and legal dimensions of the “challenge of the two distinct spheres”. Still, the strategy of Western nations must take account of this fundamental advantage of totalitarian regimes in the Internet Era. Greater information sharing to improve situational awareness and readiness levels is clearly needed, among other approaches to cybersecurity. Otherwise, the death by a thousand cuts will continue, and the “greatest wealth transfer in history” will grow in severity, and our competitiveness in the global marketplace will subside.
Doug DePeppe is a cybersecurity attorney and principal with i2 Information Security. He is a Cofounder of the Western Cyber Exchange.