CIberspace is a huge, unregulated mess. A virtual wild west where sophisticated criminal gangs exercise their trade alongside multinational companies, spy agencies, activists, influential celebrities and nation states. The question of who rules it is one of the greatest of our time.
Britain needs to be, if not to dominate the waves, at least a global force for good in the expanding virtual world. The problem has never been so urgent. Six years ago, I acted for a coder in the UK’s largest cyber phishing case. The malware that my client and others created was so sophisticated that the police could not decode it, but they were able to prove that it was used to commit fraud. The financial data collected was stored on two servers, one in France and one in the US, and the lack of international cooperation meant that law enforcement never got it.
The case is almost ancient history in cybernetic terms. Today, the same type of malware is being used on a previously unimaginable scale in ransomware attacks targeting national infrastructures, such as the Colonial US Pipeline Operator last month, the NHS in 2017, and even baltimore city.
Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary and the closest thing we have to a cyber minister, signaled her determination to make Britain a global technology superpower, protecting the world’s most vulnerable countries, for a Historic cyber summit in London In May. But there are signs that your government grossly underestimates the scariest cyber scenario of all: the possible fragmentation of the internet.
Raab said Britain must shape cyberspace according to “our values”, while preventing China, Russia and others “from filling the multilateral void.” What does it mean? It all sounds so abstract, so far removed from our daily life.
What he refers to is the invisible battle for control of cyberspace and the ideological imperative that we liberal democracies emerge triumphant to imbue the rest of the world with “our values.”
As part of that mission, Raab announced a £ 22 million investment in a British-funded cyber operations center in Africa, in the hope that the continent would be delighted to play as a cyber ally. The bad news is that Africa has already found a partner.
It has been a shower of Chinese investments for decades. As I write, Beijing plans to lay undersea cables along the western and eastern coasts of Africa to provide Internet access to previously underserved towns and villages. Connectivity looks like progress, and many in Africa are understandably pleased.
But here’s the problem: the Chinese are building your own internet, in a possible fragmentation that has been called “splinternet”, an alternative cyberspace in which Britain cannot even see it, unless it is invited. Many developing countries are likely to subscribe to it.
The Chinese version of cyberspace would be separate and ideologically distinct. Beijing is not interested in improving the existing Internet in an interoperable and open way, or helping the world become more resistant to cyber attacks. It is committed to creating a completely different digital architecture, complete with its own government and ideological values, and incompatible with ours.
In building this architecture, the Chinese have turned to an unlikely freedom-loving technology: blockchain. It is a word that puzzles many people. But it is simply a decentralized digital network made up of blocks of data stored in nodes, and all of our laptops could be nodes linked in a chain, which means that we are all connected without censorship or interruption.
Part of the appeal of blockchain is supposed to be that it is a peer-to-peer system with no middlemen and, more importantly, no central power. But China plans to subvert that because the Chinese state would own the blockchain and its agents would operate at every node. The Chinese Communist Party would have the power to monitor all communications in perpetuity.
The blockchain would become a super-powered tracking device and a data warehouse on an unimaginable scale. How is Britain’s African cyberhub going to help prevent all of this?
Any country that joins China’s divided network would almost certainly expose its people to the same levels of state control. For some leaders, that would be tolerated as a by-product of China’s technological benevolence, as Beijing gives Africa free internet. For others, it would be welcomed as an opportunity to subdue their own people. In effect, it would herald the beginning of a new Cold War-style divide, not between East and West, but between an open and free Internet, and one used to control and oppress.
It’s a grim vision, but one that China seems to be adopting with determination. Another manifestation is its potential for fiscal surveillance, through its new digital currency, the state-backed digital yuan, controlled by the People’s Bank of China.
Raab’s vision that Britain “shapes cyberspace in accordance with our values” is laudable, but in such a rapidly fragmented cyber landscape, in which China has the tools and the desire to dominate the global community, it is in danger of sound pretty quaint.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism