Cyberwar debates

There has been some robust debate happening on a corner of the Internet. I’ve written before about some of my concerns about the rhetoric of “cyber” war in the past (Related pieces here and here), but recently I was compelled to write in to the Lowry Interpreter, commenting on a piece by cyber security expert Ian Wallace. Ian was discussing the coming age of cyberwarfare and new cyberweapons, and I expressed some skepticism as to exactly what these ‘things’ are, requesting some clarification.

His original piece is linked here and I’ve quoted my response below (which you can also read here).

“I found the recently published post by Ian Wallace another example of a somewhat frustrating article on ‘cyber’ warfare.

That there is some kind of ‘warfare’ taking place on telecommunications networks (outside of fictional networked video games) is increasingly becoming a taken-for-granted fact. Espionage, crime – sure – but warfare? Unless the definition of warfare has changed substantially, I’m still unsure how an actor might actually use the Internet to gain strategic or tactical advantages in the field of war. Yet articles like the one Ian Wallace has published indicates that there is, or there might be, such uses for the Internet .

Questions I’d love answered include: have there been recorded cases of states or non-state actors using networked technology for a strategic or tactical advantage in war? Or, in what circumstances can an actor gain advantage in war through use of cyber ‘weapons’ (whatever they might be) that couldn’t be gained using preexisting ‘conventional’ weaponry?

It seems to me that those advocating the existence of cyber war (or its possibility) do a poor job of articulating the utility of cyberspace as a domain of conflict outside of describing it in terms more relevant to espionage or crime. Call me paranoid, but the increasing rhetoric of ‘cyber’ warfare seems more about consolidating state power over the Internet than it has to do with actual important security concerns.”

Unexpectedly, the Interpreter published it and the original author wrote back with a much more detailed and, I think, better response via the Lowry Interpreter which is linked here. I particularly am drawn to this point

“How should governments deal with cyber acts that have a national security impact (espionage, sabotage and subversion, if you will) but which fall below the threshold of ‘war’, especially when the perpetrators are based overseas and often beyond the reach of law enforcement?”

…which I think is a very legitimate concern.

Other people have written in to share their views, such as engineer Tony Healy who opens up with a discussion of Stuxnet making some excellent points and pointing out some key challenges for security. For the record, I don’t disagree that cyber threats don’t exist, I’m essentially engaging in a argument of the appropriateness of the term ‘cyber warfare’.

To briefly clarify, I’m aware of the potential for using networked technologies to gain advantages in ‘war’ however I’m still skeptical as to the current level of utility networked technologies, or technologies or methods that exploit networks have over conventional methods of ‘doing war’. No doubt this viewpoint will change as technology gets even more advanced and integrated and perhaps after our view on what constitutes ‘cyber’ and what doesn’t as it still seems to me that ‘cyber’ is a blanket term used to describe acts of war that might use some aspect of newer technology.

The war over the Internet

If you leave the door open to your house, and someone enters and steals some items, you don’t say you’re at war. You’ve been robbed certainly, but you’re not in a state of war.

I completely agree with Sam Roggeveen’s sentiments over at The Intepreter regarding the cyber warfare rhetoric that is doing the rounds in both within Australian Government circles and also in the media.

While I have written about it before, I do find it very interesting that nation-states like the US and Australia can seemingly easily lay blame for network intrustions on the shoulders of nation states like China. Now I don’t expect for a second that they don’t have experts advising them on how networks like the Internet function, it is interesting how network connections from IP Addresses allegedly within China, become ‘Chinese Hackers’ and then morph into ‘China’.

While I’m not for a second claiming that Chinese security personnel are not engaging in a form of espionage (Citizen Lab in Canada is doing a lot of interesting research work on these issues), one should be aware that IT security professionals are well aware at how easy it is to spoof IP Addresses and route traffic through other countries on their way to other destinations. I frequently find that the articles on cyber-attacks and cyber war gloss over the question of how one knows where exactly an attack or network intrusion comes from.

Buzan’s and Waever’s ideas on ‘securitisation’ seem so obviously applicable here in the way cyberwar is being discussed, particularly within contemporary Australia politics. Call me paranoid, but my fear is that these alleged ‘cyber attacks’ are being increasingly discussed as existential threats in the hopes the government’s around the world can increase their control over the networked domain. We have seen with the likes of Wikileaks that the Internet doesn’t always exactly play nice with the interests of governments.

The reality of these attacks is, at least to me, that many of these network intrusions come down to poor IT infrastructure and security protocols domestically. Other nodes on the network exploit these weaknesses. Opportunity knocks. Don’t leave your doors open.

Perhaps of interest, here’s an address by IT Security expert Marcus Ranum talking about how the analogies of war don’t work in cyber space.

Some other commentary from around the web:

Boston Marathon and the Chechen connection

The terrible events of the last week in America may significantly alter western perceptions of jihadist terrorism should those suspected of undertaking the Boston Marathon attacks be eventually proved to be culpable.

Two young Chechen males were singled out with the use of photographs. One of those suspects is now dead, and the other critically injured after a gun battle with Boston police (one police officer has also passed away). As The Guardian writes, “if it established that Chechens had planted the bombs in Boston, it would mark an unprecedented development: the first time militants from the former Soviet republic have carried out a deadly attack outside Russia.”

For those who are not aware, the province of Chechnya in southern Russia is demographically dominated by Muslims. They’ve been involved with a decades-old struggle for autonomy with Russia for some time, and have, at different times, been linked with the activities of al-Qaeda, with many young Chechen’s receiving training in other theatres of jihad such as Afghanistan.

However, many in the west have always presumed the Chechen conflict to be one that was rationalised within the boundaries of secession, a struggle not explicitly congruent with the goals of groups like al-Qaeda (saying that, al-Qaeda has shown time and again that they’re more than willing to support struggles of Islam against ‘foreign’ influence). For instance a 2009 report by the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism stated that despite the visible presence of jihadist fighters associated with al-Qaeda, “the conflict in Chechnya is one of secession and not Islamic fundamentalism. The objective of the resistance is the creation of an independent Chechnya and not a fight against the west” (Scher 2009)[1].

However, it’s difficult to say that those accused of the atrocities in Boston are in fact linked explicitly to the run-of-the-mill jihadist terrorist groups America has been dealing with since September 11. It’s been written that those accused of the bombings grew up in America and were not known to be involved in militant activity. It’s actually pretty difficult to see what gains a Chechen would get from attacking American civillians, assuming that their raison d’etre is still dominated by dreams of Chechen autonomy.

Saying all that, radical Islam has proved to be a remarkably flexible ideological framework. It can both justify and motivate violence, but often acts a shroud for other context-specific grievances, such as competing value systems, political and social exclusion and territorial dispossession. These grievances could easily be one thing to motivate individuals to terrorism, even if their ethnicity might indicate some other rationalisation for violence.

What is clear to me, should those accused eventually be found guilty, it indicates the continued enigma that is terrorism. It’s difficult to pinpoint general root causes of these sorts of violent acts. In the case of jihadist terrorism, I personally favour the grievance-as-cause thesis behind terrorism. Studies of Muslim migrant communities have concluded that vulnerable parts of Muslim communities may attempt to recast their ‘otherness’ in a reactive identity (Roy 2004: 45) (ror the record, I reject the argument of Islam as a pathologically violent religion). Such reactions could be made reality through the act of bombing American civillians participating in a marathon.

We’ll have a to wait a bit longer to see the fog of conflict dissipate, until the truth about what exactly went on, that those suspected of the act are actually proved guilty, before we can draw strong conclusions. Whatever comes of it, these acts of violence have reverberated throughout the international system, and serve as a continued reminder of the lingering danger of terrorism.

[1] Scher, Gideon. 2009. ‘Chechen Jihad: An Analytical Overview’. International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. Accessed 30 September 2009. Available at
[2] Roy, Oliver. 2004. Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. London: Hurst & Company.

The phrenology of Django Unchained

Django Unchained.

Tarantino’s latest work, Django Unchained is a hell of a ride, great in all the ways you’d expect from a Tarantino movie – violent, stylish, vivid and often comedic in its outrageousness  If you haven’t see it, it’s set in antebellum America and concerns itself with freed slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), attempting to become reunited with his missing wife who just so happens to be owned by a frightening plantation owner with a fondness for popular science and racialist anthropology. While I personally prefer Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained is still worthy film. Hell, it even got best screenplay at the 85th Academy Awards.

* Some minor spoilers for Django Unchained – This post assumes some familiarity with the movie *

One idea the movie has resurrected is the pseudo-science called phrenology – a populist science that at certain periods of the 19th century dominated scientific and medical discourse. Reviews and message boards all over the Internet have recoiled somewhat in horror that a science that justified racial discrimination and enslavement was ever allowed to exist in the history of ideas.

Here’s part of the scene that has sparked so much discussion. This is actually the end of the scene but Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Calvin Candie does mention looking at three dimples on the inside of the head of his slave Broomhilde. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Phrenology has an enduring interest to me. I just so happened to write a detailed thesis on the processes of historical change amongst medical classes in 19th century America using phrenology as the lens by which to view this change. It was an interesting project of little practical application but when it popped up in Tarantino’s movie, I was drawn to make a comment on it’s portrayal and also comment further on the ideas history.


If you don’t know what I’m talking about – permit me a brief explanation. Franz Joseph Gall, an Austrian doctor, came up with the idea of ‘craniology’ (later termed ‘phrenology’ by Gall’s assistant Johann Spurzheim) after examining countless cadavers and in particular the shape and form of their heads. Gall demarcated the human skull into 27 sections, each corresponding to a behavioural characteristic that he called ‘organs’ (the number of ‘organs’ would later vary with various practitioners, doctors and scientists inventing many more). You may have seen a phrenological bust before – they’re a fairly common kitsch item. I have one myself!



Gall and Spurzheim theorised that through exercising these ‘organs’ one could modify their external behaviour. Heads were ‘read’ by examining bumps on the outside of the skull, and by knowing your moral or character flaws, one could aim for a more moral or ‘good’ existence and change ones behaviour. Thus, sin or morality, in the eyes of phrenologists, became a treatable condition. The idea spread like wildfire amongst the elite of Western Europe and The British Isles, and phrenological societies became popular pastime amongst scientific, medical, legal and even religious classes.

It found a particular fertile home in antebellum America – where fatalism and ‘manifest destiny’ and the idea that shaping ones future was within the grasp of the common man defined frontier America. Entrepreneurial characters like Orson and Lorenzo Fowler established business as roaming ‘practical’ phrenologists, who would read heads for a fee, and allow one to gain access to a ‘science’ that would solve moral and social dilemmas without having to rely on God’s good graces. It was these reasons that phrenology was often referred to as the ‘science of man’.

The full story of phrenology is a lot more detailed and complicated than I’ve explained here, but I think I laid out the requisite amount of information to launch into my next point.


Was phrenology an example scientific racism? I would argue yes and no. Its initial intention seems to revolve around curing moral problems and the vices of the state of nature. Phrenology was popular because people were aware of behavioural defects not only amongst themselves as individuals, but also within wider society. Things like crime and mental illness were all ‘phrenologised’ and people thought by having heads examined for behavioural issues, individuals could ‘become better’. Phrenology could be used to determine if an alleged criminal was actually predisposed to crime by the story his skull shape told. Think about how modern day courts use psychiatrists to determine the mental state of alleged criminals and you’ll get a good idea of the concept.

However, phrenology did dwell on ideas that could only be considered racist by today’s standards. Historically, those racialist tendencies can be traced back to ideas pedaled by the likes of Samuel Morton’s. In Morton’s Crania America, he looked at the size and shape of skulls and estimate about brain cavity sizes amongst different races and used this as the basis of his idea of polygenism: that humans were fundamentally made up of a different species. Lorenzo Fowler, one of the most well-known 19th century practical phrenologists claimed that phrenology could account for variance in racial types, believing that American Indians and African-Americans had hereditary inclinations to a certain set of phrenological ‘organs’.

However, there were those boffins of the time with a prevailing interest in phrenology repeatedly who couldn’t see a discernible difference between the size of skull types from all races. What was interesting about the time period was that phrenologists, while believing in racial inferiority, touted phrenology as a method of overcoming perceived racial disadvantages in addition to being a science to solve moral inferiority – essentially that African-Americans and American-Indians could access phrenology to become as ‘moral’ and ‘good’ as Caucasians.

Phrenology was certainly a good example of a wrong idea, something that didn’t stand up to the empirical scrutiny and now rightly debunked as pseudoscience. It flourished in an era of extremely racist people. I’m not surprised that the character of Candie in Django Unchained was so interested in phrenology and it would not have been unusual for these ideas to be popular in antebellum America. The thing is the ideas of phrenology were not explicitly set out to classify different racial types, rather instead attempted to solve problems of morality and sin without having to rely on an outside deity. However, it does seem that the idea was pounce upon with those people who were inherently racist or had a vested interest in giving ‘scientific’ justification for dominating and enslaving others.


One final thought in an otherwise already bloated essay. Did Tarantino portray phrenology correctly?

In the film, Calvin Candie talks about how smacking open a black slaves skull with a hammer to examine the inner contours of the skull and correspond them to character or racial traits. Apparently Tarantino got this idea from a book published in the early 20th century called ‘Negro, Beast of Man’, but by that stage phrenology had long since been debunked and was the province of only very deluded non-scientific people.

The way to ‘do’ phrenology relied on the external shape of the skull. Bumps and contours were examined by phrenologists, who might be a doctor or scientist or a ‘vulgar, practical’ phrenologists (the type who traveled the country performing at carnivals and so forth) . However, in Django Unchained, the character of Calvin Candie talks about the inner contours of the skull. This doesn’t really make sense even in the minds of 19th cenutry practitioners – if phrenology was practised in the way suggested by Calvin Candie back in the 19th century, practical phrenologists (the types who went to carnivals or town fetes) wouldn’t have had a business. After all – they can’t very well go around smashing open peoples’ skulls to check for dimples and bumps.

My thoughts here is Tarantino simply portrayed phrenology this way for dramatic effect. The imagery of Candie smacking open someone’s skull to check for bumps is horrifying image. The historical reality this probably didn’t happen. This article by Professor Karen Johnson over at Polite and Society reminds us that Django is a fictional and dramatic movie and not a historical piece.


If you made it this far – thanks for allowing me to indulge in talking about phrenology and 19th century America. I guess if I was forced to conclude, I’d say that Tarantino’s Django Unchained used phrenology well for dramatic impact but perhaps misled audiences with regards to the ideas historical impact. Essentially, phrenology was initially thought of a science to solve moral problems rather than justify racial superiority, although there is no doubt it warped into this particularly as the 19th century went on. And Tarantino’s character Candie described the practice of ‘phrenologising’ someone incorrectly – it was the outside of the head that phrenologists look at – not the inside.

Keep in mind with the above, the history of phrenology is much more complex than the simplified version I’ve outlined above, but hopefully it gives you a basic grasp of the issues in regards to how they relate to Django Unchained. Above all, let’s not stop these things from ruining an otherwise excellent film!

Cybercrime as a security issue.


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


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.