How Cyberpunk Killed Cybersecurity

This post is cowritten by and Alex Olesker.

Before we begin, please understand just how hard it is for us to write this blog. I’ve read Neuromancer countless times, enthusiastically used Snow Crash in undergrad to talk about the future of international relations, and watched both Ghost in the Shell movies and the Stand Alone Complex (seasons 1 and 2) countless times. I am psyched for the Robocop remake and even (if you get me started) rave about obscure movies like Strange Days. I’ve convinced countless friends and significant others to watch Blade Runner and used to have a Tachikoma toy. And recently, Alex and I rewatched a large chunk of the series and compared the “Laughing Man Incident” to the birth of Anonymous.

But as I was discussing with Alex one day, we both came to realize that the movies, television shows, and manga comics that inspired us to write and work in this area were also holding us back. That’s right. Cyber is, as we’ve discussed before here at CTOVision, a very future-oriented field. It’s not surprising that our basic perceptions of it would also be formed by science fiction. But this has some adverse effects for defense policymakers, CTOs, and other people interested in cyber. I wrote a piece for Mike Tanji’s site a long time ago about the problem of “legacy futures” in cyberspace. Essentially, legacy futures are old visions of the past that no longer keep pace with the present. But they act as a deadweight drag on the policy process because they have essentially colonized our imaginations. This manifests itself not only half-baked ideas like “cyber arms control” that rely on Cold War legacy futures that compare code to nuclear missiles, but also in fundamental aspects of how we think about cyberspace.

In his essay, “The Myth of Cyberspace,” PJ Rey argues that William Gibson conceptualized cyberspace in a fundamentally wrongheaded way that still influences cyber policy:

Gibson’s cyberspace is an imaginary setting where information takes on some of the properties of matter. Yet, cyberspace is transcendent; it requires leaving behind the body and the physical world that contains it. When hackers “jack in,” they are no longer conscious of the physical world. The hacker trades a physical body and environment for one constructed of digital information. It is important to note that, as the cyberpunk genre evolved, it increasingly wrestled with forms of consciousness that blended sensory inputs from physical and digital sources. Nevertheless, cyberspace, as an ideal type, involves total separation of physical and digital.

The logical implications of this metaphysical perspective on cyberspace are a perspective of “digital dualism.” The problem for digital dualists is that, despite sci-fi visions of hackers floating in an ethereal cyberspace that is completely distinctive from “meatspace,” our digital interactions are fundamentally embodied. As Sam Liles has often noted, we interact with other people in cyberspace through devices. Cyberspace is only as much of an artificial or “man-made” environment as the sea is. And just like nations control the sea around them, real world experiences, laws, and regulations create digital outcomes, as SOPA opponents unhappily discovered. Mexicans killed by cartel henchmen for their social media use also are a data point that suggests that there is no real separation between cyberspace and “meatspace.” Rey has an excellent discussion in his article on how the entire market of location-based services on mobile devices and the way people can be tracked through geolocating is in and of itself proof that we are embodied in cyberspace.

As Rey suggests, Bruce Sterling is more realistic in describing cyberspace as a function of a human need to overcome the alienation induced by long-range communications. We want to imagine something in between the space in which our telegraph, telephone, or Google Chat conversations occur. Such a space does not really exist, but we have a psychological need to fill that space to overcome our sense of alienation at conducting a conversation with someone else we can neither see nor directly interact with. Cyberspace is a fantasy, but it’s made real in our minds and actions by us treating it as such. Rey again explains it:

The fantasy of cyberspace is “serious” because it is cognitively necessary. It relieves us of the burden of having to parse the seemingly infinite complexity of the systems that make such communication possible. This kind of fantasizing is a counterpart to what sociologist Anthony Giddens calls the “bargain with modernity.” Giddens believes that our modern lives are characterized by an endless series of risks (e.g., driving a car, stepping into an elevator, taking medicine, etc.) because it is not possible for any one individual to understand all the minute complexities of the myriad technological systems we depend on every day, we must place our trust (and our very lives) in the hands of experts. Trust is our basic conscious mechanism for dealing with such complexities; denial is its unconscious counterpart. Fantasy gives substance to this denial. Part of the seductiveness of the cyberspace fantasy is that, by denying the complex, mutually determining relationship between our society and the Web, it makes our lives and our everyday judgments simpler.

Now Rey has the cultural implications of digital dualism down cold. What are the policy implications? The first is the inability to see the very real similarities between all things “cyber” and everything else. Most petty crimes are never solved, so why should we be surprised that cybercrimes go mostly unpunished? Is there a very big difference between someone stealing your bike from the local DC bikeshare because they had figured out a vulnerability that not even the lock manufacturer suspected and a zero-day exploit? And when it comes down to who should have organizational responsibility for law enforcement or military aspects of cyber conflict, the myth of cyberspace as a corporeal thing that we enter into via digital, disembodied avatars has immense consequences.

The conception of cyberspace as a separate plane also perverts our analysis on real risks and mitigation. Just as the real strategic value of the sea is its ability to effect events on land through embargoes, bombardments, transport, and other such means, a serious cyber attack won’t disable World of Warcraft to kill digital orcs, it would disable a hospital intensive care unit to kill real patients. The reverse is also true as the physical world can affect what happens in cyberspace. Digital dualism is the fallacy behind air gapping’s poor track record. Often, the most critical networks such as industrial control systems, are not connected to the Internet and hence thought invulnerable to cyber attack. Yet as cyberspace is not a real place, you can’t actually leave an air gap, and because human beings and machines interact with both “air gapped” and connected networks, attacks still get through via removable drives, personal devices, and temporary connections. One recent example was the virus that attacked the U.S. drone fleet in September, which got into the “air gapped” cockpits via USB drives.

Along with misrepresenting the threat, remaining stuck in the cyberpunk view of cyberspace makes us miss the solution. As pioneers in cyber law enforcement have learned, just because the crime was committed electronically does not mean that the investigation has to be limited to cyberspace. Just as some of the most notable hacks are the result of social engineering, most major cyber crime investigations hinge on physical evidence, informants, and undercover officers. Similarly, while attribution may be complicated in cyberspace, it tends to be much simpler in meatspace. we can safely assume that the party which most stands to benefit is behind a cyber attack, and it will be easy to track who’s behind a “cyber Pearl Harbor” because they will be the ones massing their troops at the border.

This isn’t to deny that there are important differences between cyberspace as a domain of conflict from other forms–hence our earlier giggling at the idea that the arms control community could treat bits of code like missiles or biological weapons. You aren’t going to have Hans Blix do on-the-spot inspections of Russian and Chinese internet cafes or the UN Security Council discussing the finer points of 4chan posts with Guy Fawkes mask-wearing Anonymous hackers. But digital dualism disables us from using our best weapon against cybercriminals and enemy cyberwarriors–the common sense we’ve developed through dealing with similar technologies, crimes, weapons, and strategic situations. And for that reason, maybe it’s time that we save our mirrored shades and Depeche Mode CDs for VHS 80s’ retrospectives and look with fresh eyes at cyberspace.

This post by was first published at CTOvision.com.

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