The Interpreter

Peter Singer on Cybersecurity and Cyberwar, Part III

Editor's Note: In Part III of his interview with The Interpreter, Peter W. Singer discusses his new book Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know, admitting that the system the Internet is built on faces a number of threats: crime, authoritarian governance, and militarization among others.

Sam Roggeveen: Is there a danger that fears over cybersecurity will 'kill the goose'? Could 'securitising' the internet destroy the idealistic spirit on which it was founded?

Peter W. Singer: Yes, I very much fear that the internet, which has been the most powerful force for political, economic, and social change in my life, and maybe even all of history, will not be what my kids inherit. The internet is built on a system of trust and it is threatened like never before.

We can see attacks on this trust from the massive wave of cybercrime, to the ill-effects of attempts by the NSA and our allies' intelligence agencies to conduct mass online monitoring in the pursuit of small numbers of terrorists, to the creation of 'Great Firewalls' in China and the 82,000 website blacklisted by Russia that threaten to balkanize the internet. A deep concern I have in the year ahead is the attempts by authoritarian regimes to shift the underlying governance model of the internet to one that is state controlled

SR: Can you say something about China's role as an exponent of cyberwar and cyber-espionage? How good are they? How extensive are China's operations?

PWS: China is mentioned in the book as often as cats are, and that's because you can't tell the story of the internet and its future without talking about either. 

China is, just like the US, Australia and some 100 other nations, building immense cyber military capabilities. So we devoted a whole chapter in the book to it. Its scale is huge; by one report, a key department has over 130,000 people assigned to it. Moreover, the formal units are supplemented by a wider set of cyber militia and patriotic hacker communities.

But when you discuss China and cybersecurity, the issue should not merely be future war fears that haven't yet happened. Instead we should talk more about the reality of its central role today in the largest theft in all of human history, the massive campaign of intellectual property theft that has targeted everything from international organisations and government agencies to defence companies and small furniture makers to universities and think tanks around the world. It is easier for politicians to talk about 'cyber 9-11' and 'cyber Pearl Harbor,' but economic and national security may be greater harmed by 'death by 1000 cuts.'