As I See It: Flights of Fancy
June 23, 2008 Victor Rozek
On December 7, 2005, the Air Force released its new mission statement: “The Mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests–to fly and fight in air, space, and cyberspace.” Besides noting that the Air Force should expand its mission to include hiring an English major to fix that tortured bit of writing, it is worth observing that the Air Force has taken an active interest in cyberspace.
It’s all part of the NeoCon dream of world domination through a process of global militarization called “full spectrum dominance.” The concept refers to a joint military structure capable of achieving control of land, sea, and air theaters anywhere in the world. But for those who dream of domination, the world is not enough. When the U.S. abandoned the treaty prohibiting the militarization of outer space, the ambition to reign supreme lifted off the planet to also include the domination of space. And just when you thought we were running out of things to dominate, the Air Force tossed in cyberspace for good measure.
The Air Force’s stated goal is to “gain access to, and control over, any and all networked computers, anywhere on Earth.” Of course, one man’s modest ambition is another’s tax bill, and the Air Force estimates that establishing cyber dominance will cost Americans $30 billion over five years. Fortunately, as taxpayers know, the cost of military procurement is never underestimated, so we can be certain that costs will not exceed approximations. Happily, for skilled IT professionals, a portion of that money will be used to hire legions of cyber warriors. If you’re a hacker, gamer, developer, or just a high-end keyboard junky, Uncle Sam wants YOU!
As posted on CommonDreams, William Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and former instructor at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, says that on May 12 this year, the Air Force Research Laboratory posted an official “request for proposal” seeking contractor bids to begin the push to achieve “dominant cyber offensive engagement.” (A goal that manages to simultaneously sound vague as well as manly.)
But it’s not just military contractors the Air Force is wooing. The Force is trolling the Net for IT talent. It sponsors pop-up ads warning of impending cyber attacks that will disrupt Internet connectivity. Another Internet ad–which also apparently ran on television–pictures a vulnerable Pentagon while a narrator intones, “This building will be attacked three million times today. Who’s going to protect it?” Apparently, the hope is, IT professionals will.
Without question, protection is warranted, and the need extends beyond the Pentagon. On June 11, Congressman Frank Wolf, a long-time critic of China’s human rights abuses, reported that his computers were hacked by someone inside China seeking information on political dissenters. Such outrageous violations of security and privacy can and should be prevented. But security is unrelated to domination.
Nevertheless, the Air Force is looking for coders who can provide much more than security, including: “. . . any and all techniques to enable user and/or root access to both fixed (PC) or mobile computing platforms. Robust methodologies to enable access to any and all operating systems, patch levels, applications and hardware. [T]echnology to maintain an active presence within the adversaries’ information infrastructure completely undetected. [A]ny and all techniques to enable stealth and persistence capabilities. [C]apability to stealthily exfiltrate information from any remotely-located open or closed computer information systems.”
These techniques, methodologies, technologies, and capabilities will provide the Air Force with an alpha-numeric advantage dubbed D5, which Astore calls “an all-encompassing term that embraces the ability to deceive, deny, disrupt, degrade, and destroy an enemy’s computer information systems.” In truth, there is a sixth “D” that is conveniently omitted: descry; or more bluntly, the ability to spy.
It all sounds noble and innocent enough, like something plucked from a Star Wars video game. But as gratifying as it may be for cyber warriors to destroy, degrade, and disrupt, problems arise when the government decides that you and I are the enemy. For the citizenry, there are no protections, no oversight, no checks and balances, just the hope that the (air) Force will be with you.
While there is no denying that maintaining network integrity is vital to domestic (as well as global) interests, there are several cautions that ring loud. To begin, we know that spying is to government what catnip is to cats. It was the government that spied on such “subversives” as Martin Luther King and John Lennon, to name two, and has now graduated to spying indiscriminately on U.S. citizens. Whatever its criteria for culling threats to the homeland, they resulted in placing Nelson Mandela on the no-fly list. With a record of less-than-prudent judgment, the military now wants access and control of our networks and laptops. History repeatedly shows, however, that the desire for total domination is not the pursuit of rational people. When behavior is driven by power and paranoia, excess is inevitable because domination provokes resistance, and resistance is subdued by force.
The very existence of such a program will spawn potent antibodies. National interest and national honor will not allow competing nations to roll over like intimidated dogs and concede cyberspace to the United States Air Force. Rather, they will develop their own countermeasures. A cyber arms race is in no one’s interest.
Then there are the twin issues of competence and compatibility. Whether it’s the IRS or the FBI or the Air Force, installing complex computer systems has not been government’s strong suit. In 2003, for example, an FBI system, years in development, with 730,000 lines of code and a price tag of $170 million, was scrapped because it was essentially unusable. More often than not, three descriptors apply to large scale government-sponsored IT projects: late, over budget, and quasi-functional. Astore argues that being late and over budget may not matter a great deal when producing a tank, but it is antithetical to the pace and nature of information technology, where change is as frequent and predictable as the sunrise. A computer system that is five years late? “That’s a paperweight or a doorstop,” he says.
No less antithetical are the differences between the highly regimented, do-as-you’re-told-and-never-question-authority culture of the military, and the don’t-tread-on-me culture of top gun developers. Now there’s a war waiting to be fought.
All things considered, Astore predicts failure, which is not to say that a lot of programmers couldn’t make a lot of money in the process of creating a $30 billion paperweight. Programmers are and will remain in high demand within the military and clandestine services. In a document called Joint Vision 2020, a blueprint for the Department of Defense, the military’s reliance on information technology is clearly stated: “The transformation of the joint force to reach full spectrum dominance rests upon information superiority as a key enabler. . . ” The reliance on software for achieving supremacy only sustains my long held belief that IT personnel have a unique responsibility to choose their work wisely, precisely because of the enabling nature of what they do.
Many questions remain unanswered: Is such an undertaking even possible? And if so, where does the quest for dominance stop and how will it intersect with the private sector? Arguable, it would require the “cooperation” of industry giants like Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, and assorted ISPs (if it doesn’t already). And what if they refuse to cooperate? Will Yahoo’s programmers fight a cyber war with the Air Force? Not likely. The electronic surveillance state is being assembled bit by bit, sacrificing privacy and personal freedom for the delusion of security.
The larger issue is whether dominance is even compatible with security. It certainly hasn’t worked well in Iraq, and I suspect it will produce similar results in cyberspace–creating permanent low-level conflicts that will serve a dual purpose of wrenching control of the Internet from public hands, while providing a lasting means of spying on the citizenry.
If security is truly the goal, it is much more likely to be achieved as a result of international cooperation than domination. Rather than full spectrum dominance, why not attempt a radical, subversive alternative, so outlandish that its very boldness could portend a shift in domestic priorities and an elevation of national consciousness: Full spectrum collaboration.
Wouldn’t that be refreshing?