In a Monty Python skit from 1970, the Vercotti brothers, wearing Mafia suits and dark glasses, approach a colonel in a British military barracks. "You've got a nice army base here, Colonel," says Luigi Vercotti. "We wouldn't want anything to happen to it." Dino explains, "My brother and I have got a little proposition for you, Colonel," and Luigi elaborates, "We can guarantee you that not a single armored division will get done over for 15 bob a week."
If the idea of the military having to pay protection money to the mob seems silly, imagine what Monty Python could do with last week's White House decision on security. It announced a new "Cyber Command" to protect information infrastructure, but stipulated that the military is allowed to protect only itself, not the civilian Internet or other key communications networks. When President Barack Obama announced the plan, he stressed that it "will not -- I repeat -- will not -- include monitoring private-sector networks or Internet traffic." It's like telling the military if there's another 9/11 to protect the Pentagon but not the World Trade Center.
The announcement shows that our political system is still ambivalent about how to defend communications networks such as the Internet. We expect privacy, but we know that intrusive techniques are required to protect the system from cyber attacks. How to balance privacy with preventing attacks that would undermine the system altogether?
It's an open secret that the National Security Agency (NSA) must operate through civilian networks inside the U.S. in order to prevent millions of cyber attacks every year by foreign governments, terror groups and hackers. Likewise, the NSA must follow leads through computer networks that run through innocent countries. "How do you understand sovereignty in the cyber domain?" asked James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in a recent speech. "It doesn't tend to pay a lot of attention to geographic borders."
The risks are real. Cyber attacks on Estonia and Georgia by Russia in recent years forced government, banking, media and other Web sites offline. In the U.S., the public Web, air-traffic control systems and telecommunications services have all been attacked. Congressional offices have been told that China has broken into their computers. Both China and Russia were caught having infiltrated the U.S. electric-power grid, leaving behind software code to be used to disrupt the system. The risk of attacks to create massive power outages is so serious that the best option could be unplugging the U.S. power grid from the Internet.
The military is far ahead of civilian agencies such as Homeland Security and is now focused on cyber offense as well as defense. Cyberspace, says Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, is the new "domain," joining the traditional domains of air, land and sea. Each is a focus for both defense and attack. The U.S., a decade behind China, is now officially focused on using cyber warfare offensively as well as defensively.
The U.S. is an inventive nation, so we'll get to the right answer on security if we ask the right questions. What if the only way the military can block a cyber attack is to monitor domestic use of the Web, since foreigners use the Web to launch cyber attacks? What is a "reasonable" search in a virtual world such as a global communication network? What's the proper response to cyber attacks?
If cyber war is a new form of war, wouldn't most Americans adjust their expectations of reasonable privacy to permit the Pentagon to intrude to some degree on their communications, if this is necessary to prevent great harm and if rules protecting anonymity can be established? Finally, wouldn't it be better for politicians to encourage a frank discussion about these issues before a significant attack occurs instead of pretending there are no trade-offs?
Only the NSA, which operates within the Defense Department, has the expertise to protect all U.S. networks. It has somehow found ways to mine needed data despite pre-Web rules that restrict its activities domestically. But the question remains: How can the military get enough access to private, domestic networks to protect them while still ensuring as much privacy as possible? One logical approach is for Homeland Security to delegate domestic defense to the NSA, but for the domestic agency to maintain enough responsibility to have political accountability if privacy rights get violated in the process.
We'll look back on the current era, with the military constrained from defending vital domestic interests, as an artifact of an era when it was easy to point to what was foreign and what was domestic. In the digital world, as the cyber threat shows, physical distinctions such as political borders are unhelpful and can be dangerously confusing.