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Rights of a Sovereign Nation or Invasion of an Open Internet?

Politicizing the actions of governments towards Internet security

The headlines are no surprise to those in the Internet business. "Police in Central China have shut down a hacker training operation that openly recruited thousands of members online…" (AP) We've know China, Russia, and several of the former Soviet block countries are the source of sophisticated hacking, and those activities have at least been tolerated, if not directly supported, but the host governments.

The recent dispute between Google and China's government brings another question into the breach – does a national government have the right to censor or control the flow of information in or out of the country? While China may be in the news, citizen journalists in Tehran have been severely punished for attempting to Tweet, email, blog, or transmit cell phone images outside of the country. Under the umbrella of national security do countries like Iran have the right to control that information, or develop teams of professional hackers to go out and look into the accounts of residents and citizens?

Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA): To amend title 18, United States Code, to make clear a telecommunications carrier's duty to cooperate in the interception of communications for Law Enforcement purposes, and for other purposes.

DCSNet, an abbreviation for Digital Collection System Network, is the FBI's point-and-click surveillance system that can perform instant wiretaps on almost any communications device in the US (Wikipedia)

I think we can all agree that any state which sponsors cyber attacks on another nation, either through direct objectives, or by turning a "blind eye" to the activities of criminal groups or organizations is a bad thing, which the entire global-connected world should fight. There is no justification for state-sponsored or state-tolerated denial of service, disruption or access to personal and private data, nor online theft.

The Rights of a Sovereign Nation
As Americans, we can get very sanctimonious in our approach to human rights, national ethics, or national morals. We believe we are always right, based on our religious or cultural beliefs, and other nations and cultures should learn from us and change their errant ways to be more like Americans. This means it is probably OK for the national Security Agency, or other three-lettered government agencies to tap, monitor, or perform other forms of espionage – as long as it is done under the context of national security, or even better if you can throw the word "anti-0terrorism" in the conversation.

Thus activities such as DCSNet, or laws such as CALEA, do not bother us too much. However when China tries to look into the systems using a similar premise of national security, the world has an uproar of indignity, not understanding how those people can possibly violate the privacy of email and other systems.

So the question is – "does a nation have the right to set its own laws, cyber-policies, and regulations regarding the Internet and other information systems?"

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has strong opinions on the topic. As a long time advocate (since 1990) for protecting the civil liberties of Internet users, both through protecting the rights of users and educating law enforcement agencies, the EFF includes the following points in its stated mission:

  • Develop among policy-makers a better understanding of the issues underlying free and open telecommunications, and support the creation of legal and structural approaches which will ease the assimilation of these new technologies by society.
  • Raise public awareness about civil liberties issues arising from the rapid advancement in the area of new computer-based communications media.
  • Support litigation in the public interest to preserve, protect, and extend First Amendment rights within the realm of computing and telecommunications technology.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

(1st Amendment to the US Constitution)

Law enforcement and national security agencies of countries around the world would object to the American equivalent of the First Amendment, citing the current world situation, or the sovereign rights of a nation allow it to write, establish, modify, interpret, or change such laws as needed to meet an existing or desired environment.

With global connections to a global community governments are struggling to understand how to control or manage information flows within the country. Twenty years ago it was easy for a government to determine exactly what materials would be used in the education of an 8 year old primary school student. Today, a student in Vietnam, Mongolia, or New Jersey basically have the same access to educational materials as any other student in the world, as well as news, intercommunications, and citizen journalism.

And we must also acknowledge the inherent use of deception by governments and other lobbyist organizations. In the world of governments, what you see is not necessarily what you get. The media is used as a mouthpiece of government policy (when it can be controlled), and without a strong governmental "noise filter" and open citizen journalist community you may not get the real story – only the story a government or organization wants you to receive. They believe it is their right as a sovereign nation's government of deliver you the news they believe you need to know, or they want you to know.

Some Guidelines for Responsible Cyber-Government
There are priorities. While we all understand national intelligence agencies will always do what they do best – access information they believe will give their respective nation some level of political, economic, or military advantage, the priority should be to protect citizens (including the context of global citizens) from malicious attacks on their personal data and ability to do business and communicate via the Internet.

Hacker schools, such as the China-based Black Hawk Safety Net, cannot be tolerated by a reasonable global community. If a government supports the activities network-enabled criminal activities, then that government should be identified and the world given the means to protect themselves from that risk. The US Government has taken some openly advertised steps in this direction by authorizing the US Air Force to establish the USAF Cyber Command.

The new Air Force Cyber Command "will train and equip forces to conduct sustained global operations in and through cyberspace, fully integrated with air and space operations," said Major General Charles Ickes.

Of course that capability can both defend – and attack as needed to meet military and national objectives.

Leaving users once again at the mercy of governments to both act responsibly, and in the interest of a global community. Sure, we have our work cut out for us. Like most individual users and people depending on the Internet for our livelihoods and futures, the burden is ultimately on us to protect ourselves from intrusion, theft, and denial of service.

More Stories By John Savageau

John Savageau is a life long telecom and Internet geek, with a deep interest in the environment and all things green. Whether drilling into the technology of human communications, cloud computing, or describing a blue whale off Catalina Island, Savageau will try to present complex ideas in terms that are easily appreciated and understood. Currently focusing efforts on designing data centers, telecom, enterprise architectures, and cloud computing strategies in developing countries, including Palestine, Indonesia, Moldova, Egypt, and Vietnam. John Savageau is President of Pacific-Tier Communications dividing time between Honolulu and Burbank, California. A former career US Air Force officer, Savageau graduated with a Master of Science degree in Operations Management from the University of Arkansas and also received Bachelor of Arts degrees in Asian Studies and Information Systems Management from the University of Maryland.