Cybergeopolitics: emergent set of practices, phenomenon and discipline

Leonid Savin

Head Administrator of the International Social Movement “Eurasian Movement“, Editor-in-chief of the magazine ‘Geopolitika’ and web-portal Geopolitica.ru, Expert at the Center for Conservative Research (in the Sociology Faculty, Moscow State University), author of several books on geopolitics, conflicts and international relations, Moscow, Russian Federation.

In recent times, we hear about the increasing role of cyberspace as a political tool or domain where confrontation takes place between the various political organizations, countries, and even alliances of states. Edward Snowden’s case is indicative of the fact of how Internet communication and the interdependence of the social environment with politics, economics, and the military sector has become important and affects both the current agenda and the strategic planning of the leaders of the major world powers.

If geopolitics already developed a scientific apparatus and definitions which are used by politicians, experts, and scholars, cyberspace in some sense is a “terra incognita”, and there is an active struggle for the domination of this space. Extremely significant in this confrontation are the positions of different states on the regulation of the Internet domain. A dichotomy in this field literally repeats the mega-civilizational break that runs through the countries and peoples belonging to the Sea and Land Powers. The U.S., EU countries, and their satellites are in favor of a free Internet service that is obvious hypocritical (because of the hidden manipulations with social networks, the PRISM program, and so on), while Russia, Iran, China, India, and some other states require that the Internet be a sovereign space and under the jurisdiction of international law, precisely the International Telecommunication Union under the United Nations. The Summit on Cyberspace held in December 2012 in Dubai showcased the exacerbated contradictions of international telecommunications when the United States refused to sign the new treaty regulating the right of all states to engage in management of the Internet. This separation clearly fits into the scheme of Carl Schmitt, which is a reliable indicator of the politically dual categories of friend or foe. These categories are not moral, but technical, features that manifested themselves in the positions over the view of the functioning of the Internet space.

Geography of Cyberspace

First, we need to define the term cyberspace. Researchers attributed the authorship of this word to science fiction writer William Gibson, who used it in the story “Burning Chrome”, published in 1982, and two years later, he developed this theme in his famous 1984 cyberpunk novel “Neuromancer”, where the author described cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination”[1]. Cyberspace has a significant difference from the land, sea, air, and space – it was created not by nature, but as an artificial construct that has components that may change over time. Different countries have their own definition of cyberspace. In the U.S.’s 2003 paper “The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace”, it was stated that “Our nation’s critical infrastructures are composed of public and private institutions in the sectors of agriculture, food, water, public health, emergency services, government, defense industrial base, information and telecommunications, energy, transportation, banking and finance, chemicals and hazardous materials, and postal and shipping. Cyberspace is their nervous system—the control system of our country. Cyberspace is composed of hundreds of thousands of interconnected computers, servers, routers, switches, and fiber optic cables that allow our critical infrastructures to work. Thus, the healthy functioning of cyberspace is essential to our economy and our national security”[2].

In the “National Cyber Security Framework Manual” issued by NATO in 2012, we can read that “cyberspace is more than the internet, including not only hardware, software and information systems, but also people and social interaction within these networks”[3].

Hence, it is clear that cyberspace is directly related to actual geography, which, together with politics (or the governance of power), is a key element of the science of geopolitics.

First, all the routes of communication and technical server nodes that are an essential part of the Internet are geographically localized. Secondly, cyber domains have a national identity in the sense of domain zones, state control, and the language used. Third, cyberspace emphasizes physical geography in a special way – sensors of various services, navigation devices, technical gadgets, and mobile devices embody an interactive map from the cross-flow of information, technology, and people.

Cyberspace fixes and homogenizes the physical space in a particular way – thus, globalization, with the assistance of GPS technology and other tools, permeates the most secluded corners of the planet.

As such, digital technologies reconfigured the mapping experience into something altogether different that Bruno Latour and his colleagues called “the navigation platform”, characterized by the presence of:

– Databanks;

– Some interface for data handling, i.e. calculation, treatment, and retrieval;

– A dashboard for mutual interfacing between users;

– Many different outputs tailored to a great variety of users – one of the outputs being paper printouts.[4]

The traditional role of the map is revised, there are various emerging schools associated with the description of the political and institutional relations of mapping, the map becomes performance-based, and it is understood as having emerged through a diverse set of practices.

Mapping the Internet space becomes a priority for a number of research centers and universities. There are enough in limited quantities, but every year we have more and more specialized publications, the works of governmental departments, scholarly institutions, and divisions in various think tanks that have been monitoring cyberspace and recording its changes – whether it is the emergence of new technical nodes, the issue of new laws, or criminal activities in the network.

Based on the above, we see that cyberspace is not uniform and has several levels. David Clark has proposed a model in which there are four levels of cyberspace.

From the top down in order of importance:

• The people who participate in the cyber experience — who communicate, work with information, make decisions, and carry out plans, and who themselves transform the nature of cyberspace by working with its component services and capabilities.

• The information that is stored, transmitted, and transformed in cyberspace.

• The logical building blocks that make up the services and support the platform nature of cyberspace.

• The physical foundations that support the logical elements.[5]

Actually, the people’s (social) layer includes government, private sector, and civil society actors, as well as subjects of the technical community. Nevertheless, they all share the traits of people in the “real” world (outside of cyberspace), in that they can ultimately be identified by their unique DNA codes, thereby making the attribution of the network much more difficult (inside cyberspace). In contrast to the “carnal” world, people in cyberspace facilitate the creation of multiple identities for the user, resulting in a virtual personality that can have multiple human users (e.g. the same online office account of the newspaper “The New York Times” is used by different employees). This is not only important in terms of safety or the protection of copyrights, but also raises interesting questions about how the cyber world is affecting the real world[6].

In addition, the terminology previously used in cybernetics is also adequate for the geopolitics of cyberspace. Until now, it was decided to talk only about two types of cybernetics – the first and second order. If first-order cybernetics has been associated with the observed systems, the second-order cybernetics is the actual observing of the systems[7].

This remark indicates a high organizational nature of a new wave of cybernetics, although some definitions are quite reminiscent of geopolitical theory and disciplines about power.

Internet Governance 

If we talk about cyberspace as a political activity, there are two main models related to this new area of human activity at the moment. The first is e-government. This term should be understood as the implementation of special services which facilitate relations between the authorities and citizens and provides different services such as electronic payments, virtual receptions, and processing queries through remote access. All of these actions are designed to facilitate and simplify the lives of taxpayers in the country where the use of post-modern communication technologies is prevalent.

The second is the use of cyberspace as a medium and a tool for the dissemination of certain political cultures. Highly significant in this respect are the efforts by the U.S., where the government uses the Internet as a new means to achieve their goals. This is furthered not only by the civilian sector, but also via different law enforcement organizations and special agencies.

In 2011, it became known that the U.S. military launched a program associated with the manipulation of social networks. As the British “Guardian” noted: “The discovery that the US military is developing false online personalities – known to users of social media as “sock puppets” – could also encourage other governments, private companies and non-government organisations to do the same. Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said: “The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”[8]

At the end of 2011, the White House announced the creation of a virtual embassy in Iran for “strengthening ties with the Iranian people”[9]: http://iran.usembassy.gov/. It is significant that at the same time, the U.S. Congress had taken various measures to ease ties with Iranian officials and the imposition of sanctions is damaging the Iranian economy. Before that, the United States had opened a virtual consulate for Gaza.[10]

Actually, there are several terms used by the U.S. government to designate innovative ways to influence a foreign society through the Internet: digital diplomacy, Internet diplomacy, Twitter diplomacy, public diplomacy, and Web 2.0. The most common term among the establishment of the United States engaged in foreign policy issues and determining influence over other countries is the latest one.

The technology of Web 2.0 unleashed for the interaction of political activists by Internet technologies was effective during the mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as for coordination and self-organization of various opposition political groups in Russia.

Threats of Cyberspace 

As we can see, cyberspace is not a utopia, as earlier science fiction writers had claimed. This is a new domain of human activity where there are limitations, disasters, epidemics, and flaws, although they do not directly affect people’s lives – it all depends on the choice of the individual. If someone is so carried away playing computer games that they become unable to adequately perceive reality, does this not make the scourge of cyberspace the virtual equivalent of real-world drug addiction[11]?

Cyber dependence is linked not only with professional duty or entertainment; it is the very nature of the Internet. The American contemporary philosopher of anarcho-primitivism John Zerzan, for example, noted that the human psyche, after having used the Internet as least once, is subject to irreversible consequences.[12]

The same concept can be applied to “disease” in this “world”. In 1983, Fred Cohen deliberately developed a program that can infect other programs by modifying them so that they evolve their possible evolutional copy, as he noted in his dissertation. Based on a biological analogy, he called this new program a “virus”.

The term “worm” was coined by John Brunner in his novel “Shockwave Rider”, issued in 1975. While viruses are just an infected computer program (or file), worms “crawl” forward and copy themselves between systems. Using the vulnerability of computers known as the back doors, worms spread without the help of inconsiderate users. In 1988, the Morris worm penetrated and infected about 60,000 hosts of the Arpanet nascent network, which was the prototype of the current Internet. Robert Morris himself, the creator of the worm, was the first person prosecuted and convicted in accordance with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986[13].

If we have quarantine measures against dangerous diseases in the physical world and there are even international conflicts involving epidemics or deliberate infections (biological weapons), should this not be the case in cyberspace? The history of the last decade demonstrates such phenomenon. The most illustrative cases were:

– Cyber attacks in 2007 on Estonian government websites;

– Actions of hacktivists in August 2008 during the attack of Georgia on South Ossetia and the peacekeeping operation of Russia;

– Impact of the Stuxnet worm on computer systems of Iran’s nuclear power plant;

– Numerous actions of hacktivist groups such as Anonymous, Syrian Cyber Army, etc.;

– Leaks carried out by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, with an indirect impact on U.S. and international politics.

According to experts, the number of such attacks will only increase and the methods of hackers will improve in the future. This is forcing many governments to reconsider their policies regarding the Internet and take special measures to protect this domain.

Cyberconflicts 

Of course, cyberspace is both a medium for conflict and a tool. If classical geopolitics uses the concepts of power by the sea (Sea Power) and power by the land (Land Power), and Air Power and Space Power developed in their wake, then Cyber Power is the most recently talked about new domain of control. The U.S. military places special significance upon it.

Robert M. Lee from the US Air Force wrote that “Cyber power will be as revolutionary to warfare as airpower, but the current vectoring of the domain will determine which nation will hold cyber dominance and to what effect. In the early years of the cyberspace domain, the United States primarily considered cyber power a means of establishing broad command and control across the war-fighting domains. Cyberspace focused on communication; indeed, operational success depended upon maintaining the lines of communication. As the domain grew, it assumed additional roles to provide a support force to traditional military operations while experts explored other roles—a process that occurred at the highest levels of secrecy. Many of the first cyberspace leaders realized that cyber assets offered a number of options for attack, defense, and exploitation never before afforded to military commanders. In a highly connected world where substantial advancements in technology were common, the capabilities and weapons in cyberspace became even more impressive”[14].

Cyber operations can be carried out in all areas of warfare: in the air, space, cyberspace, and on land and sea. Furthermore, despite the immaturity of operational doctrines for cyberspace, doctrines for air and space remain relevant and applicable to the field of cyberspace. In other words “cyber operations are just another set of tools from the arsenal of a commander”.[15]

U.S. Cyber Command was first created in 2010, although attention was paid to this new domain earlier than that. For example, in December 2005, cyber operations were included in the basic manual about the service and the mission of the U.S. Air Force.[16]

China, Iran, and other countries rushed to develop their own cyber military capabilities with relevant doctrines and strategies. Budgets for cyber security also begin to increase rapidly. U.S. Cyber Command stated in January 2013 that its staff of personnel will be increased by five times. Britain also hurried to upgrade its cyber arsenal and argued that the country needs network security due to the fact that 6% of Britain’s GDP is earned through transactions that are somehow connected to the Internet.

John Arquilla, the famous expert on network wars, writes that the “exploits of cyberwars on a small scale may eventually reach large sizes, given the clear vulnerability of advanced military and various communication systems that every day more and more cover the world. He believes that cyberwar is destined to play a more prominent role in future wars.[17]

Arquilla believes that there is an opportunity to possibly develop a certain code of conduct, e.g. the prohibition of cyberattacks against purely civilian targets, at least between states. Some shadow networks, i.e. radical political groups, may also follow a certain code. The second thesis is hardly likely, as in the case of terrorist actions, the aim of such groups is to intimidate the population in order to achieve their political goals, and cyberspace is a prime opportunity for this.

Because cyberpower can quickly hit networks and information systems worldwide in a special war, eroding the frontline of combat, this feature, combined with its destructive power, generates fear among the population because cyberpower’s capabilities may be as strong as those experienced from terrorist attacks.[18]

Therefore, to underestimate its power to influence public opinion and politics would be a serious mistake. Even if we consider only the military aspect of cyber conflict, it still differs greatly from the war on land, sea, air, and space. Freedom of action is a characteristic of superiority in cyberspace. A rough summary for supremacy in cyberspace can be “freedom of action during the time of attack” (i.e. the ability to act, even during and after the attack).[19]

But there is another point of view, according to which, on the contrary, cyber assets utilized in conflicts actually “soften” their nature and minimize the damage to the enemy and the costs incurred on the attacking side. Naval Postgraduate School Defense Analysis Distinguished Professor Dorothy Denning believes that “if you can achieve the same effects with a cyber weapon versus a kinetic weapon, often that option is ethically preferable … If an operation is morally justifiable, than a cyber route is likely preferable, because it causes less harm”.[20]

On the question of ethics in cyberspace, we can address the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, which have become the subject of public debate in the United States and other countries. Proponents of a massive use of drones in the U.S. suggest three main reasons why this industry needs to be developed: (1) UAVs can carry out tasks that people are not capable of due to psychological constraints (e.g. duration of operations and extreme maneuvers); (2) the preservation of the pilot’s life during hazardous missions and a reduced political risk (which would be heightened in the case that a downed pilot is captured); (3) reduction of costs incurred in connection with the systems required to maintain the functions of the pilot (oxygen, climate control, ejection seats, etc.) and the possibility of using a more basic design than the one that is needed for aircraft designed for on-board team operations[21] There is a tendency that drones in the future may even replace actual strategic bombers in the U.S. Air Force.

Another part believes that the use of drones violates international law and leads to a large number of civilian casualties. The report of the New American Foundation stated that for the first two years that Obama was president, he ordered four times as many UAV bombings than George W. Bush did during his eight year tenure. This report gives the approximate number of people killed in Pakistan as being between 1489 to 2297 (April 2012).[22]

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also shows interactive maps on its website that mark the spot where U.S. drone attacks occurred, as well as statistical data such as the names of the killed civilians.[23]

All in all, the deadliest man-machine interface (the UAV) is the most visible demonstration of how cyber asserts can be utilized for military purposes.

Conclusion

All these factors suggest that geopolitics has gained a cybernetic factor in which the basic axioms still apply, but at the same time, which is also another level of reality with entirely new rules.

Careful analysis and monitoring of cyberspace and the development of appropriate rules are imperative for today. This requires a revision of classical political categories and a revaluation from the current moment. We must remember that cybernetics is word first created thousands of years ago, but its meaning was somewhat different. The word “cybernetics” (κυβερνητική) was first mentioned by Plato in his work “Laws”.[24] It is translated as “the art of the helmsman”. In his third to last book, believed to be the most solid in terms of the arrangement of the works of the ancient Greek philosopher, the state is compared with a ship, and its helmsmen are God, fate, and good time. Despite the enthusiastic attempts from the first creators of the Internet to make cyberspace a zone of free creativity without political interference, cyberspace remains political and the thesis of Plato is still actual and relevant.



[1] William Gibson, Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books, 1984

[2] The National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace, Washington, DC: White House, 2003.

[3] Alexander Klimburg (Ed.), National Cyber Security Framework Manual, NATO CCD COE Publication,

Tallinn 2012 P. 8 http://www.ccdcoe.org/publications/books/NationalCyberSecurityFrameworkManual.pdf

[4] Valerie November, Eduardo Camacho-Hubner, Bruno Latour. Entering a risky territory: space in the age of digital navigation. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2010, volume 28, p.583.

[5] David Clark, Characterizing cyberspace: past, present and future, MIT/CSAIL Working Paper,

12 March 2010, P.1

[6] Alexander Klimburg, Philipp Mirtl. Cyberspace and Governance – A Primer. The Austrian Institute for International Affairs, Working Paper 65 / September 2012

[7] Heinz von Foerster. Cybernetics of Cybernetics. University of Illinois, Urbana 1979

[9] Mutter, Paul. Few Virtues to “Virtual Embassy in Iran”. December 23, 2011. http://www.fpif.org/blog/few_virtues_to_virtual_embassy_in_iran

[10] http://gaza.usvpp.gov/about_econsulate.html

[11] Dene Grigar. Lara Croft: Cyber Heroine. Leonardo June 2006, Vol. 39, No. 3, Pages 269-270.

[12] John Zerzan. Twilight of the Machines, 2008

[13] A Better Way to Battle Malware. November 22, 2011. Winter 2011, Issue 65. http://www.strategy-business.com/article/11403?pg=all

[14] Robert M. Lee. The Interim Years of Cyberspace.// Air & Space Power Journal, January–February 2013, Р. 58

[15] Eric D. Trias, Bryan M. Bell. Cyber This, Cyber That . . . So What?//Air & Space Power Journal. Spring 2010, Р. 91

[16] Hon. Michael W. Wynne, Flying and Fighting in Cyberspace, Air and Space Power Journal 21, no. 1, Spring 2007: 3, http://www.airpower.au.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj07/spr07/spr07.pdf

[17] Arquilla J. Cyberwar Is Already Upon Us. MarchH/April 2012. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/02/27/cyberwar_is_already_upon_us

[18] Robert M. Lee. The Interim Years of Cyberspace.// Air & Space Power Journal, January–February 2013, Р. 63

[19] Eric D. Trias, Bryan M. Bell. Cyber This, Cyber That . . . So What?//Air & Space Power Journal. Spring 2010, Р. 96-67

[20] Kenneth Stewart. Cyber Security Hall of Famer Discusses Ethics of Cyber Warfare. America’s Navy, 6/4/2013 http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=74613

[21] Policy Options for Unmanned Aircraft Systems. A CBO Study. June 2011. Congress of U.S. Congressional Budget Office. Р. 3.

[22] Masters, Jonathan. Targeted Killings.// CFR, April 25, 2012.  http://www.cfr.org/counterterrorism/targeted-killings/p9627?cid=nlc-dailybrief-daily_news_brief-link14-20120426

[23] Interactive map. August 10th, 2011 http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2011/08/10/google-map/

[24] Plato: Laws, Books 1-6 (Loeb Classical Library No. 187) by Plato and R. G. Bury, 1926

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