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Cyber espionage and the case for the genetically modified state

Published on 23 August 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, Professor John Naughton of the Open university argues that the biggest story to come out of the Snowden NSA revelations is that the days of the internet as a truly global network are numbered.

“It was always a possibility that the system would eventually be Balkanised, i.e. divided into a number of geographical or jurisdiction-determined subnets as societies such as China, Russia, Iran and other Islamic states decided that they needed to control how their citizens communicated”, writes Naughton. “Now, Balkanisation is a certainty”.

But is Balkanisation the big deal here? Do the NSA revelations actually change anything?

In opening his recent Frankfurter Allgemeine article, Evgeny Morozov comments that “the problem with the sick, obsessive superpower revealed to us by Edward Snowden is that it cannot bring itself to utter the one line it absolutely must utter before it can move on: “My name is America and I’m a dataholic.”

In pursuit of the strategic high ground, states have always coveted and sought information that would give them an edge over their competition – both in peacetime diplomacy and trade and in war. While espionage is as old as civilization itself, the internet and ‘big data’ have exponentially amplified the magnitude of this pursuit.

Compared to the hunter/gatherer methods of intelligence collection available to spy agencies just decades ago, the internet presents contemporary governments with a virtual forbidden hypermarket of collection possibilities. It’s no wonder then that states with the means to covertly mine the internet for information will do so. Given this, the Snowden revelations should come as no surprise. Perhaps the gasps of horror following the leak were less to do with the fact that the US had followed such practices and more to do with the fact that its clandestine depredations had been outed in this way.

Like a celebrity exposed for a sexual fetish or drug addiction or otherwise succumbing to an aspect of their human nature that one avoids discussing in polite company, the US has been sprung for giving in to a natural urge of statecraft that it would have preferred remained unknown.

Others do it, we know. It’s natural. But through good deception or good fortune they maintain the pretense of virtue and avoid the ignominy of being caught. With the game up, accusations are met with counter-accusations. Competitors snigger. Commentators point to hypocrisies and cast moral judgment. Things become a little awkward.

According to Widney Brown, Amnesty International’s senior director of international law and policy, it is the very fact that states know they’re all doing it that keeps their activities in their collective closet and mutually hidden from public view. Writes Brown, “States are reaching far beyond their borders in a lot of their unlawful surveillance, and at the same time looking at outs where they basically have a quid pro quo going on.”

But in this case, Edward Snowden’s whistle blowing deprived the US of an expedient out. In his 9th century commentary on Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Tu Mu writes “”Just as water, which carries a boat from bank to bank, may also be the means of sinking it, so reliance on spies, while producing great results, is oft-times the cause of utter destruction”. For the US, the NSA revelations have been a public relations catastrophe.

Now that this inconvenient truth has become international tabloid fact, will China, Russia and Iran, as Professor Naughton suggests, take their slices of the internet ‘off the grid’?

The ‘splinternet’, cyberbalkanization, or internet balkanization, has been documented and discussed for well over a decade. States and organizations possess the capacity to balkanize their slices of the net in all sorts of ways, and already have to varying extents. The imperative driving this is the protection of information… an imperative necessitated by that basic, primordial urge shared by states and corporations alike: the pursuit of an information edge by covert means.

The NSA revelations will not result in the balkanization of the internet. It’s already happening. Internet balkanization is an inevitable consequence of how states conduct themselves… it’s written in their DNA.

If anything, the revelations tell us that a little genetic modification is in order.


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