The Real Cyber War describes global tensions lurking in the foundations of the Internet.

Editor’s note: What seem to be almost daily revelations of cyber crimes draw attention to the brave new world of the Internet. While these attacks attract publicity, the underlying pressures buried deep in the very foundations of the Internet are less obvious.

In their recently published book, The Real Cyber War, the Georgia State University-based team of Shawn M. Powers and Michael Jablonski launched a full court press to reveal “the power struggle over information as a resource in history, in practice and in geopolitics.” 

The investigation included 12 Freedom of Information Act requests resulting in their acquisition of more than 3,000 official documents from the U.S Departments of State and Commerce; the Federal Communications and Trade Commissions and the National Security Agency. 

These author-investigators also conducted archival searches of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris and the International Telecommunication Unit (ITU) in Geneva

In addition, they conducted 62 in-person interviews with practitioners, industry experts and civil society leaders from Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, Israel, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Qatar, Russia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United States and Ukraine

Dr. Powers is an assistant professor of communication at Georgia State and Mr. Jablonski is an attorney and presidential fellow in communication at Georgia State.

In the following two-part interview, they explore the extent of the ongoing fight for control of the information that flows over the Internet.

Global Atlanta: Since your book The Real Cyber War came out earlier this year, there was a devastating computer systems breach at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management leading to theft of personal information, financial data and national security secrets. Does this breach along with others that have occurred in recent months alter in any way the views that you express in The Real Cyber War, which outlines the emergence of an information-industrial complex?

Dr. Powers: First, let me offer some background on the concept of an information industrial complex, why it matters, and then I’ll explain how it actually predicted the successful hack on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

Daniel Guerin introduced the concept of a “military-industrial complex” (MIC) in 1936 to refer to a “coalition of groups with vested psychological, moral, and material interests in the continuous development and maintenance of high levels of weaponry.” The MIC emerged as a result of the Great Depression and World War II, and has continued to expand to form a co-dependent relationship between the private sector and federal government. The codependence that defines the MIC produced an ineffective model for governments and businesses alike: ineffective for government because its decisions tended to be overly influenced by private companies, resulting in a bloated military budget; ineffective for businesses because they rely on easily obtained government contracts, leading to a loss of competitiveness and innovation.

Some 70 years later, the transition from an economy based on heavy industry toward one grounded in communication technology and information management has resulted in a new “silicon triangle” between policymakers, the information industries and the American public. Regular cooperation between U.S. government and private-sector actors has furthered the rise of a global economy driven by information and communication technologies while simultaneously placing U.S. companies at its center. Starting in the early 1940s, the American government invested in building public-private partnerships in the information technology sector that enabled the rise of Silicon Valley. Through various policy mechanisms, including subsidy, domestic and international policy reform, direct investment, and guidance, the U.S. government facilitated the rise of modern information and communications technologies, including, in particular, computers and the internet, funded their advanced technological development, and pushed for governance structures enabling their global reach. This is what we describe as the information-industrial complex (IIC).

The analogue to the military-industrial complex is not merely descriptive, it is also prescriptive: the symbiotic relationship between the U.S. government and the information sector does not bode well for the future of Silicon Valley or American statecraft. Government dependence on private sector expertise comes at the expense of cultivating the kind of technical expertise and institutional knowledge required to defend the government’s data. It leaves the private sector vulnerable too, as is evidenced by a weakened technology sector struggling to overcome foreign suspicions after Edward Snowden revealed the extent of their cooperation with the National Security Agency (NSA).

Thus, while the recent hacking of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is catastrophic, it is not surprising. Governmental investments in Silicon Valley came at the expense of cultivating in-house, high-end cyber security talent. With the exception of the NSA (which oversees the protection of the DOD’s network, but not OPM’s), the federal government is massively under-staffed and lacks the kind of IT professionals needed to protect some of this country’s most sensitive information. This isn’t mere speculation. The Inspector General report found that, until 2013, OPM had “no internal IT staff with professional IT security experience and certifications.” As of November 2014, “only a fraction of the agency’s systems had been brought under the control of a central IT security organization.”

Worse, it was OPM’s dependence on private contractors that made them so vulnerable to this attack. The Inspector General found that contractors operate outside direct control of OPM’s IT staff, adding, “several information security agreements between OPM and contractor-operated information systems have expired.”

Global Atlanta: Let’s ask this same question in another way. The Real Cyber War underscores the common interests of Google and the U.S. government to impose Internet freedom globally while advancing Western economic and digital dominance. But these hacking escapades seem to indicate that the government agencies aren’t power players but victims of sophisticated hackers. What do you think?

Dr. Powers: In the realm of cyber security, the U.S. government and its private sector are clearly not dominant in any sense of the word. But, as the book’s title indicates, this is just one element of cyber war. Governments are also competing to design the rules governing digital information flows. From the perspective of many in the developing world, the real cyber war is not over offensive capabilities or cybersecurity but rather about challenging existing institutions and norms governing the Web in order to limit the dominance of Western internet and technology industries. To understand this aspect of cyber war, I analyze the economics of connectivity and outline how the U.S. came to dominate the global digital economy.

Some historical context may be helpful in explaining this argument. Under the Clinton administration, Vice President Gore lobbied foreign governments to adopt ICT regulatory environments that directly mirror ours, a crucial step in opening up the global digital marketplace. Today, global economic growth is driven by the power of productivity-enhancing ICTs, and we all know that at the center of the global internet economy is the United States. Thirty-eight percent of the production needed to build internet-related hardware, software, and content originates inside the 50 contiguous states.

The next largest contributor is Japan (14 percent), followed by China (10 percent). The United States also captures 35 percent of global internet connectivity (telecommunications) revenues and more than 40 percent of net income generated online. A McKinsey Global Institute report concludes, due to strong growth and sales in software and services, hardware, telecommunications, as well as the U.S. position as global leader in cultural exports, “The United States remains the largest player in the internet supply ecosystem.”

As a result, U.S.-based technology companies are a critical driver of American economic growth. In 2010 the ITIF estimated that the commercial internet had made the U.S. economy at least $2 trillion larger in terms of annual GDP than it would have otherwise been, accounting for approximately 30 percent of U.S. economic growth.

Critical to continued economic expansion in markets like China, India, Russia, Brazil, and elsewhere are the policies governing internet usage and development. Like any industry, regulations (or their absence) have a tremendous influence on the size, scale, and significance of internet-related commerce in a given country. The potential growth in countries with less-established internet industries is substantial. While the internet accounts for about 6 percent of GDP in established economies, its contribution to emerging economies is significantly lower (Brazil, 1.7 percent; India, 2.1 percent; Russia, 1.9 percent).

These emerging markets have the potential to fuel the Western-dominated internet industries for the coming decades, but only if they buy into existing international laws and norms governing information flows. Domestic controls on access and content are thus not simply questions of freedom of expression; many American businesses consider them “digital protectionism.”

Beyond headlines of hacking and malware, states are currently negotiating over the rules that govern digital spaces, the outcome of which will have far-reaching consequences for the digital economy and the democratization of the Web. The Real Cyber War is the first book to highlight and investigate this more subtle, albeit crucial, aspect of the geopolitics of global connectivity.

Global Atlanta: You often cite data as being “the new oil” with all the geopolitical issues this new unnatural resource raises. Can you further elaborate on this metaphor – and should we expect in the future the same competition for data that we have seen over oil?

Dr. Powers: Analogizing data to oil or gas is, of course, imperfect. For starters, oil and gas are finite resources, and data is potentially infinite. But the broader argument about data’s rising value and significance holds true. Michael Palmer, executive vice president for the Association of National Advertisers explains: “Data is just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc., to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value.”

The insight that big data provides about human behaviors and motivations, social trends, environmental change, policy effectiveness, and so many other endeavors is tremendous. For example, by monitoring the frequency of use of search terms on Google, one can more quickly and accurately predict flu outbreaks and unemployment levels than by traditional reporting methods and government surveys. The predictive potential of big data is especially valuable, as it can help to more effectively market consumer goods and craft public policies. Without question, commercial and political actors have taken note, eagerly tapping into a new industry of big data specialists.

Given its value, states and corporations alike compete to access and control vast reserves of data collected from netizens. While only a rough analogue, I like comparing the data economy to the oil economy to think through the various ways in which public resources and consumers are protected in the oil sector, and what similar protections may look like in the data economy. This isn’t to say that the oil sector should be model for regulating big data. Without question, existing oil and gas regulations range from insufficient to protectionist. That said, regulations on oil are typically seen as legitimate ways to protect the public’s interest, ensure excavation isn’t excessively harmful to local ecosystems, to raise tax revenue from the extraction of natural resources (ideally redistributed to local communities for improved policing, public spaces and education), and to hold oil companies accountable when they make mistakes.

Despite the size and value of data economy, the types of protections implemented in the oil economy are not seen as legitimate when it comes to companies operating with big data. As a result, corporations are allowed, if not encouraged, to collect vast amounts of information on their users and potential users, while offering insufficient legal protections as to how this valuable resource can be used, shared, sold and stolen.

Even more concerning is the lack of legal architecture to prevent a handful of major players in the data economy from abusing their market dominance in the various aspects of the data economy. For example, there is no equivalent company that has ever been capable of dominance in each facet of the oil economy to the extent that Google leads in each facet of the data economy (e.g. extraction, refining, transfer and sales). This is to say, if Google were working with any other valuable resource, it would face far more robust regulatory and public scrutiny than it has seen thus far. While careful to not call for an overzealous regulatory environment that would stamp out innovative entrepreneurs, it is time to have a careful discussion about how to ensure that key players in the data economy don’t abuse their dominance, and how governments can more effectively hold corporations accountable for failures to protect crucial data of private citizens.

Global AtlantaAre the hackers foot soldiers in a cyber war or merely thrill seekers and where do you put Edward Snowden and his impact on the development of the Internet on a scale ranging from foot soldier to thrill seeker?

While I don’t support everything that Edward Snowden has done (see, for example, this), his leaking of classified information exposed a global surveillance regime that was clearly beyond what American citizens had authorized their government to pursue. Working with journalists at the Guardian, Washington Post and Intercept, Snowden has helped to publicize the most egregious aspects of the American-led surveillance programs over an extended period of time, helping to keep policymakers focused on the need for reform. He’s also done this through tremendous personal sacrifice, living in Russia far from most his family and friends. Congressmen Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and my own Congressional representative, John Lewis, have each praised Snowden, even comparing him to civil rights and non-violence icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas K. Gandhi. Even Former Attorney General Eric Holder thinks we are better off as a result of Snowden’s revelations.

Read on to Part Two by clicking here.