by Anno Hellenbroich
Two months before the 2016 Presidential elections in the United States, the American-German Business Club in Bonn (AGBC) held an important forum under the title: “Network Power-You are surrounded- I’ll be watching you”. With this provocative title the speaker, Walter A. Bawell, former president of the AGBC Bonn, guaranteed a lively discussion. The new president of the United States will have to deal with those breathtaking capabilities of what is called cyberwar, in all its forms. This theme will also shape the transatlantic discussions, the relations with China, Russia or India.
Bawell, who looks back to a tremendous military career including special assignments at computer Systems Command, NATO integrated Systems Management Agency, with occupational specialties as Information Technology officer, opened the evening with a true “teaser”: He presented the rock group “The Police” with their song “Every breath you take” from 1983. The beginning verses invoke fear:
Every breath you take
And every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take
I’ll be watching you
Every single day
And every word you say
Every game you play, every night you stay
I’ll be watching you
Oh, can’t you see
You belong to me?
How my poor heart aches
With every step you take
And every move you make
And every vow you break
Every smile you fake, every claim you stake
I’ll be watching you
…and so on
Bawell emphasized in his presentation that with the rapid developments in the field of the electronic controlling of production, the running of crucial infrastructure nodal points, like energy facilities, water management or other sensitive parts of the “production installations in societies”, there is the real danger that hostile elements, supported by state authorities, can in one sweep disrupt the functioning of states. A famous example, which Bawell referred to (described in more details in a book, written by David E.Sanger, Washington chief correspondent of the New York Times reporting on national security affairs, called “Confront and Conceal – Obama’s secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power” which was published four years ago) is the so called STUXNET attack “worm”. The affair refers to the crashing and self-destruction of centrifuges at the enrichment center in Natanz, Iran. For a long time efforts by American and Israeli specialists were underway, to disrupt “from the inside” through cyber commands, the functioning of these centrifuges. The aim was that through such manipulations one could win time in order to prevent that Iran would get close to making a nuclear bomb. Apparently the Americans hoped that this cyber- attack could prevent the Israelis to bomb the place (to this effect see also the article published in Frontiere in 2014: https://www.frontiere.eu/le-virtu-della-guerra-virtuale/ ). The author of this commentary also thinks that at the time this could have started an uncontrollable military conflict. At the moment the documentary film by Alex Gibney “Zero Days” which is focused on STUXNET, the self-replicating computer malware can be watched in the film theaters. In the advertisement it reads: “Alex Gibney’s ‘Zero Days’ is a documentary thriller about warfare in a world without rules— the world of cyberwar.”
In his remarks Bawell made reference to the warnings of George Orwells “1984” (which was published in 1948) and about the effects of data manipulation. There has always been some data manipulation in history ( Bawell referred to the circumstances which prompted the so called German Emser Depesche, that in turn precipitated the French-German War 1870/71).
Another example which he used was the case of 2014, where (most probable) North-Korean hackers brought down 70 % of Sony Entertainment in retaliation for Sony’s “The interview” movie. Bawell wrote in the invitation to the forum: “ Imagine what would happen, if North Korean saboteurs were to land in California, set TNT under Sony’s building to cause as much damage, this would be an act of war.” The cyber-attacks could also be seen as attacks “under the threshold of war”.
The issue of disruption of national electric grids makes the broader implications of the modern network and control systems more “real”: Even the US with its most advanced network and control systems tied to infrastructure, is very vulnerable. Attacking networks in control of factory production, logistics, banking or public utilities are possible. “Imagine”, Bawell stated, “ no electric power, no sewage, no running water, empty shelves, not being able to pump gasoline…”
Given such horrific picture, the discussion naturally went in all directions: How safe is my computer, my communication? What can be done? were among those questions which were raised. People also wanted to know how Edward Snowden was to be judged. As a traitor or hero? (Oliver Stone just released his film on Snowden and in some interviews expressed great concern that America is not the America he believed in. He thinks that Snowden is a hero. This reminds of the warnings by Dwight E. Eisenhower on the unduly “power of the military –industrial complex” in his speech in January 1961).
But one must also emphasize that not all ideas of “the kooky factories” in Silicon Valley should be followed. In order to illustrate the mentality at some of the biggest firms in the world in Silicon Valley, Bawell referred to the book by Dave Eggers “The Circle” which describes – in science fiction style – the mentality of a Google-like firm called “The Circle”. However one specialist from an Internet firm argued that this new technology, which the layman calls “Internet”, including the smart computers and robots, the self-learning machines which are developed for Industry 4.0, should and cannot be stopped. What was also ridiculed was the so called “hyper sensitivity” of Germans in respect to data protection. It was argued that other countries are not so formal in respect to the “Data security laws”. The specialist argued that the Germans should be careful not to lose the competition in the advancement of this technology, in which America is still number one.
But this author thinks that one must also be concerned about those who produce the technology for the “network” and who control a growing part of the production and communication for private ends, and more important questions should be raised concerning the “democratic principles”: The right of a nation – in concert with other nations – is to defend its people (to that effect see also the e-book by Leonardo Servadio “Lo Stato nazione. Evoluzione e globalizzazioni” https://www.frontiere.eu/lostatonazione/ ). Especially in the globalized world, relations have to be ordered and oriented along the experience of what led f.i. in Germany to the evolution of the Rechtsstaat (Constitutional State). That does not mean that the technological drive and innovation should be stopped. But it might be reasonable, if crucial infrastructure is vulnerable to hostile attacks, and if the systems cannot be hardened or otherwise be reasonably protected, to consider reducing the connectivity to the system. This might be less detrimental than being exposed to cyber-attacks. (These are some thoughts which Sandro Gaycken put forward in his book “Cyberwar”, 2012)
Naturally there are today new forms of warfare emerging. But this is not the end of the history of mankind. The human being is not yet taken over by smart machines (to this effect see also the interview to Prof. Albert Cortina in Frontiere https://www.frontiere.eu/transhumanismo-hacia-una-nueva-especie/ ). What is urgently needed is a discussion about the changes concerning the “network power”. What should be discussed is that the rule of law is not overturned by the “network power”. Therefore the discussion at the Bonn AGBC was crucial and invites for a deeper reflection.
Wiesbaden September 2016