Blog Article

Cyber risks to governance, Part III: Hyper-connectivity and its impact on state power

By: Christy Quinn

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In an era of Snowden, Wikileaks, Dark Web and data breaches there have never been so many cyber risks associated with governance. This article is the third of a 3-part Strife series which examines three diverse aspects of cyber risks to governance. Andreas Haggman began by looking at the online market place Silk Road and its transformation of the online market place. Yuji Develle and Jackson Webster then examined cyber attribution in policymaking, and finally Strife Editor Christy Quinn examines the implications of hyper-connectivity.

A 2011 study by the technology company Cisco predicted that by 2020, over 50 billion devices will be connected via the internet.[1] Relatively little research has been done into the impact of such a huge growth in networking technologies upon the power and shape of the state. The first boom in global communication technologies triggered by the invention of the telegraph in 1837 and the spread of railways had a transformative impact on the state’s ability to maintain social control and wage war. The telegraph massively increased the speed of information exchange between cities and outposts connected by railway routes. While this allowed for rapid mobilisation of troops for transportation, it also sped up the spread of ideas and ideologies between urban centres, threatening the states’ capabilities for censorship and curtailing the spread of revolutionary movements. During the European ‘Springtime of the Peoples’ revolutions in 1848, news regarding the successful uprisings of anti-monarchist revolutionaries spread like wildfire through the major cities, inspiring a plethora of local efforts to capitalise on long-held feelings of disenfranchisement.[2]

While the development and expansion of network and communication technologies of the 19th century had a relatively limited direct impact on the average citizen in Europe, the rapid expansion of 21st century network technologies threatens to upturn the relationship between state and citizen on much more fundamental levels. The growth and increased density of digital networks through the internet, coupled with providing the average citizen with access to many different forms of communication technologies, is resulting in societal ‘hyper-connectivity’; speed and quantity of communication coupled with complex many-to-many socio-technical networks. These networks offer the capability to empower citizens by providing them with vast quantities of free information and the ability to massively expand their social relationships beyond their own physical limitations. The huge increases in the volume of information and communications exchanged between citizens has also been seen by policymakers to threaten their capability to monitor society for threats to national security.[3]

What is important to note is that these huge changes in power relationships brought by hyper-connectivity enable all sectors of society. The same effects that allow farmers in rural China to access weather forecasts or micro-finance for their crops empower political extremists to organise remotely and propel their political message across huge distances. Thomas Rid and Hecker have suggested that these network effects are particularly useful for militant extremists on the fringes of society and political debate. By utilising network communication technologies to organise and attract new followers, extremists can self-organise and maintain their own distinct political space without having to attempt to attract followers from wider society.[4] Just as ‘bronies’, a subculture of mostly young men and committed followers of ‘My Little Pony’ TV series, can have an outsized cultural impact despite their esoteric tastes, militant jihadists can dictate the terms of politics through choice violent interventions. As a result, hyper-connectivity challenges the power of the state to dictate political values to society.

The complexity and unpredictability of a hyper-connected society also poses challenges to state power. State power reflects in part the ability of the state to respond quickly to societal developments and threats to its sovereignty. Post-structural theorist Paul Virilio has argued that the processes of urbanisation in European Medieval societies forced states to adapt their means of enforcing sovereignty away from simply building walls around its holdings and instead to increase the speed and manoeuvrability of their military forces.[5] Hyper-connectivity poses further challenges in time and space; challenges to state power can emerge at any point within societal networks. For example, an investigation by cyber security firm TrapX found that medical devices in a hospital had been implanted with malware designed to steal data regarding patient records.[6] The implantation of network technologies into every facet of life have brought security vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious actors, creating new spaces to contest state controls on the spread of information.

One of the most significant network technologies at the centre of the growth in information exchange is encryption. Encryption and the public key infrastructure (PKI) that supports it is a central technology to a hyper-connected society by providing economic transactions such as online commerce and personal communications with guarantees of secure communications. However, the huge growth in the volume of encrypted communications, particularly since the Snowden revelations on 2013, also have the power to disrupt the sovereignty of states.[7] The growth of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin, which circumvent traditional banking systems and are extremely difficult to track by utilising complex encryption ‘blockchains’, pose a direct challenge to the state’s ability to regulate and control economic activity within its own sovereign territory. Hidden services offered through Tor encrypted networks, such as The Silk Road drugs market, demonstrate the potential of these technologies to challenge the state’s ability to enforce moral and legal codes in the economy.

Clearly, a hyper-connected society offers huge challenges for the bureaucratic modern state. The difficulties experienced by state security services and law enforcement in tackling Islamic State (ISIL) online recruitment and the rapid development of cyber crime networks are ultimately just the visible tip of the iceberg. The byproducts of hyper-connectivity, such as huge increases in the volume of information flows, increasing levels of highly encrypted communications and new societal behaviours such as cyber stalking all threaten major social upheavals over the next few decades. States such as Russia and Iran are seeking limit the connective capacity of their own citizens through the creation of ‘sovereign internets’ that can be controlled and separated from global networks at will. What is likely to be more successful is seeking to increase the reactive capacity of the state by adapting to this new reality. Whether policymakers like it or not, we now live in a hyper-connected society and it is time to consider how a hyper-connected state could work with it.

Christy Quinn studied International History at the London School of Economics & Political Science and is currently reading for an MA in Intelligence & International Security at Kings College London. His research interests are cyber security, national security strategy and the Asia-Pacific region. He is a Guest Editor at Strife. Follow him on Twitter @ChristyQuinn.

[1] Dave Evans, “The Internet of Things: How the Next Evolution of the Internet Is Changing Everything,” (Cisco, 2011).

[2] Mike Rapport David McKeever, “Technology and the Revolutions of 1848 and 2011: How Technology Can Work Towards Catalyzing Popular Revolutions,” Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, http://www.kas.de/brasilien/en/publications/34903/.

[3] “Access to Communications Data by the Intelligence and Security Agencies,” (Intelligence and Security Committee, 2013).

[4] Thomas Rid and Marc Hecker, “The Terror Fringe,” Policy Review, no. 158 (2009).

[5] John Armitage, “Beyond Postmodernism? Paul Virilio’s Hypermodern Cultural Theory,” Ctheory 90, no. 1 (2000).

[6] Kelly Jackson Higgins, “Hospital Medical Devices Used as Weapons in Cyberattacks,” Darkreading, http://www.darkreading.com/vulnerabilities—threats/hospital-medical-devices-used-as-weapons-in-cyberattacks/d/d-id/1320751.

[7] Patrick Howell O’Neill, “The State of Encryption Tools, 2 Years after Snowden Leaks,” The Daily Dot, http://www.dailydot.com/politics/encryption-since-snowden-trending-up/.

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