Cybercrime as a security issue.

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I’m presently doing a bit of reading into the concepts of cyber warfare and international security. It’s a fascinating and fairly new field and my reading comes at a time when the Australian PM, Julia Gillard, has specifically articulated threats emanating from cyberspace as a security priority for Australia within the next decade. Gillard’s speech and the government’s subsequent paper has actually drawn quite a bit of international attention.

Personally, I find the idea of cyber warfare as a security issue somewhat controversial. No doubt that malicious Internet activity impacts many, many people, but does it impact nation-states to the extent articulated by many politicians and policymakers? The empirical evidence as well as the historical ledger seem a bit thin here, particularly when you consider the social and financial costs of other security issues (namely, the health of biosphere) are getting pushed aside for what may be a fashionable potential security issue in cyber warfare and cyber crime.

One thing that is obvious to me regarding the nexus between concepts of ‘security’ and the computer networks that power the Internet, is the lack of understanding of the nature of these networks and how they operate that many politicians and policymakers seem to demonstrate. Case in point is British MP Keith Vaz, a self-confessed technological ‘dinosaur’ and Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, who have been considering the potential impact of malicious internet activity on the security of Britain. He was interviewed by Al Jazeera on cyber crime, and continually spoke about such activities in terms of malicious activity by nation-states before confusing the viewer by talking about non-state actors, including individuals.

He then continued on to frame cyber crime specifically in terms of fraud (such as stealing credit card numbers) as well as email hacking, and failing to articulate why exactly cyber crime or cyber warfare (whatever that may be) should be considered a security issue rather than a criminal activity. Not to criticise Vaz too much (fraud and cyber crime are a serious issue after all) but it does seem to me that politicians are fond of framing a hacker, individual or otherwise, as something that should require the full gaze of a state’s security resources, rather than let legal or other processes deal with these issues.

This strikes me as strange – how can the malicious and online actions of individuals, or even a large collection of individuals be equivalent to interstate warfare? This is where the whole cyber warfare as a pressing security issue falls down. Malicious cyber activity is probably better conceptualised in terms of globalised crime rather than an explicit and existential threat to human existence.

Thinking back to Gillard’s speech at ANU on cyber activity as a security issues recalls Buzan and Waever’s ideas of securitisation – where state’s talk about threats in terms of security in order to justify certain emergency measures. It’s actually the lack of boundaries, the lack of control on citizen discourse that may be a bigger threat to states and their governments rather than identity theft or hacker intrusion. The Internet allows open discourse and allows citizens to question the leviathan, and subsequently threatens their legitimacy. You can see evidence of that given the treatment of Julia Assange and the power of Wiki leaks.

Regardless, there seems to be more pressing security issues than cyber attacks. Ben Eltham’s New Matilda piece regarding environmental security gives a good Australian perspective.

There could be a day when my sentiments are proved wrong and where malicious cyber-attacks can be attributed as cause for loss of life or social disruption. I’m yet to see actual evidence of that yet, so I’m content to remain skeptical.

It’s funny, as I write this (though probably not funny for the people being effected); Bundaberg citizens are getting airlifted from their homes due to flooding cause by yet another extreme weather event. The cost of these events to Australia will be substantial, dare I say significantly more than computer crime. One gets the feeling that environmental security may have been put in the too hard basket, but that’s another consideration for another day.

Cyberspace, commodification and the history of me

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A friend of mine recommended I watch the documentary “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”, a three-part series devoted to exploring the culture of technology, its evolution and its impact upon modern society.

The first episode, “Love and “ starts off by using Ayn Rand’s objectivism as a touchstone (never a good thing in my view) but breaks off into a variety of discussions on the rise of Silicon Valley in the 1980s and 1990s and, more importantly, the unleashing of western markets on the worldwide economy, where faith in market stability was hedged on the power of computer networks.

In the first episode it mentions an allegedly very influential essay on the nature of the individual in Cyberspace by Carmen Hermosillo, a denizen of early 1990s message boards, but also a essayist and research analyst. Composed under the alias ‘humdog’, she wrote a scathing critique of the early nature of Cyberspace, seeing it as another mask by which power, particularly political and corporate power, could wear.

The essay “Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace” was published in 1994 and started with the following sentence:

“when i went into cyberspace i went into it thinking that it was a place like any other place and that it would be a human interaction like any other human interaction. i was wrong when i thought that. it was a terrible mistake.”

In one interesting passage, Hermosillo reasoned that her activities in Cyberspace resulted in her commodification. Her words and personal thoughts written on newsgroup pages owned by corporate networks could potentially be commodified. She did not own herself and she had made herself into a product yet derived no profit from her own words. Here is the telling paragraph:

“i have seen many people spill their guts on-line, and i did so myself until, at last, i began to see that i had commodified myself. commodification means that you turn something into a product which has a money-value. in the nineteenth century, commodities were made in factories, which karl marx called ‘the means of production.’ capitalists were people who owned the means of production, and the commodities were made by workers who were mostly exploited. i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment.

that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul. people who post frequently on boards appear to know that they are factory equipment and tennis shoes, and sometimes trade sends and email about how their contributions are not appreciated by management.”

Immediately after comes a chilling realisation.

“as if this were not enough, all of my words were made immortal by means of tape backups”

Obviously Cyberspace has developed rapidly since 1994, but many of the ideas Hermosillo worried about in 1994 still seem like problems today, particularly in the age where social media is the one of the dominant forms of interaction on the Internet. It’s difficult not to think of what we’re giving away simply by existing on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Us, as consumers, derive some enjoyment, leisure and occasionally financial restitution from operating on these large networks, but those who own or control these structures surely derive much much more.

One other personal concern raised after reading Hermosillo’s essay was the idea that my ‘immortal words’ could resonate henceforth, shaping my future identity in ways I may not be able to directly control. Questions begin to form in my mind – how can one detach themselves from their Cyberspace identity? Will Cyberspace warp or imprint a false impression of my own identity on current or future peoples? The impact of the Internet on history will be very interesting, and perhaps extremely concerning.

Hermosillo’s essay is great and contains much more interesting ideas than I’ve detailed here. Many of these ideas still resonate loudly today, some uncomfortably so.

On non-compulsory voting in Queensland state elections

The Queensland Government has opened up a discussion paper regarding electoral reform. It covers a lot of things, but one issue that has been making people take notice is the proposal to remove compulsory voting in state elections, meaning the responsibility of turning up at the ballot booth would become entirely optional.

Many writers have already thrown down their two cents, but I have a few idle thoughts regarding this development.

Whatever your political views, I think that introducing voluntary voting this is fundamentally a bad idea.

Many think that being forced to vote is fundamentally undemocratic, but I think those people are confusing the act of voting as something we’re entitled to, something that we can opt out of if we simply don’t feel in the mood, or don’t like particular parties or candidates, but I think these people are confused over the nature of democracy.

I personally think of voting in a democracy as a civic duty, rather than a right. Hell, you didn’t think we’d get to live in this sweet-ass democratic nation without having to do some work to keep it all spiffy clean, right?

Like paying taxes, voting is a necessary part of the democratic governance and the higher participation, the better. The lower the participation rate, at least for me, the harder it is for elected representatives to claim their mandates, for them to claim they govern ‘for the people’, and potentially lead to a policy debate dominated by narrow political interests.Not to get all doomsday on you, I fear the risk of minority disenfranchisement, where those without time or competing priorities will forgo voting in favour of those activities. A democracy where not everyone participates seems demented to me.

The US is the poster boy for optional voting. But, from the outside looking in, it seems mired with problems that just don’t exist within our system. Do US politicians do anything but campaign for re-election? Getting people out to vote seems a massive distraction within the US political system, and a host of dirty tricks get played by certain state governments in order to benefit certain candidates or parties. I fear the same in Queensland, and would become frustrated at an endless cycle of candidates trying to get people out to vote at elections rather than focus on making good policy.

I’ll touch on some of the arguments wheeled out against compulsory voting.

Many think it’s undemocratic to force people to vote. That may be the case, but the rules in Australia don’t actually force you to vote in a certain fashion. The rules require you to turn up at the ballot box every three to four years. You can (and many do) informally vote. Is this process undemocratic? If it is, then surely we should be given the option of having other civic duties as optional. It would be great to choose where my tax money gets spent, or even pay tax at all. Why should some duties be optional and others not. I haven’t come across a good answer to this.

Another criticism that reoccurs is that compulsory voting systems are somehow representative of an immature democracy. Australia is in the minority when it comes to compulsory voting, but critics seem to continually bleat this fact without giving reasons as to why this is bad.

It seems people within both major Australian parties have views on this – and that view is profoundly against non-compulsory voting. It makes sense, as it has worked well for the better part of 90 years here. I don’t see a reason to change it, and I have suspicions that the QLD government are looking into this.

I’ll halt it there, you can understand my position, but feel free to comment if you’ve got a burning opinion on this. To wet your whistle, here are some views on this issue from politicians at a federal level.