Fighting Enemies Through Cyber: What Are The Consequences?

By William J. Vogt

The U.S. security apparatus features prominently in the news due to two important cyber security strategies. First, the National Security Agency’s (NSA) access to a vast array of personal usage data from subscribers of America’s largest telecom companies is seen by many as an abuse of civil liberties. Second, the foreign policymaking establishment has pursued a strategy supporting anti-Iran groups in key parts of the Middle East, notably Syria.

These strategies pose several challenges to achieving the goal of greater security for American interests. First, these actions give publicity to enemy groups. Terrorism scholars like Bruce Hoffman have noted that extremist groups that attack American/Western interests use the Internet to gain followers by publicizing their organization’s role, actions and services. In the case of the NSA controversy, the importance of tracking terrorist activity is monumentally important in the eyes of the U.S. government. From the perspective of a fledgling terrorist organization, the lengths to which the NSA will go to get information about terrorist activity translates into a legitimizing force, sustaining an extremist group’s existence.Indeed, part of the debate in the U.S. over the potentially extralegal investigations is that fear of another cyber attack has trumped privacy concerns, namely the superseding power and rights of constitutional provisions.

Outside of domestic policy, U.S. cyber support of Syria has included the expansion of the Pentagon’s Cyber Command to provide free and more reliable Internet service to favorable rebel groups, whose communication may be restricted thanks to Assad and/or infrastructure destruction. In a conflict like this, however, simply providing open Internet access is not enough to overthrow a dictator. Works from authors like Evgeny Morozov show how the Internet and social media actually favor dictators; seeing dissent as it happens makes it easier for dictators to control opposition. My own research on social media in China and Venezuela supports this conclusion. 

This, however, is just one part of the quandary facing cyber policy makers when it comes to Syria, a civil war whose principle policy issues must be solved offline.In this way, U.S. support of Syrian rebels with cyber weapons faces the following concerns:

  • Determining true allies: In a conflict as complex as this, it is difficult to determine who best represents America’s interests post-Assad. The emergence of strange bedfellows has been boggling.For example, when Israel responded with air strikes to defend its Golan Heights territorial claims, Syrian rebels cheered!  For the U.S., the greatest fear should be a repeat of what happened in Afghanistan, when the very same people supported by the U.S. in their fight against the Soviet Union ended up setting the foundations for the international terrorist threats we see today.
  • Intellectual Property security: The U.S. must take into account the military and economic impact of cyber-military collaboration, including the possibility of being back-stabbed by current Syrian allies in the future. One of the great paradoxes of our age is that while technology can unify peoples and cultures globally, it divides us regionally, in large part due to significant trust issues. Here, the greatest concern is that today’s allies use advanced technology (or exploit the free access given) to sabotage tomorrow’s profits and security. This adds to the severity of the threat of backstabbing from former allies; the power of cyber weapons dwarfs that of the guns and material provided to the Afghan rebels of yesteryear.

As a result, even the cyber-military alliances at the nation-state level should be carefully watched. While technology has changed much of what is possible in society, the nature of political relationships still abides by basic tenets. Echoing our current situation, George Washington warns: “Why…entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of (foreign) ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?…Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies.”

William J. Vogt is the author of “Social Media in China: Supporting One-Party Rule in a 2.0 World” (Sinomedia, 2012).