Ottawa needs a strategy for cyberwar

National Post (comment)
June 30, 2009

Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski

Recently, the Canadian envoy to Iran was called in and admonished by Iranian officials for contributing to the destabilitization of the regime because of support for social networking tools, like Twitter and Facebook. The envoy must have scratched his head in puzzlement.

The Iranians’ furor was ignited by the work of our company, Psiphon, which is based in Canada and has actively engaged in a campaign to help Iranians bypass their country’s filters and exercise basic human rights of access to information and freedom of speech. On average, one Iranian per minute has signed up to our “right-2know” nodes — customized websites pushed into Iran that contain access to BBC Persian and Radio Farda — and more than 15,000 have used our service since the crisis began.

However, we have received no support from the Canadian government — not even a note of thanks. As far as we know, the Canadian government does not even have a cyberspace strategy (of promoting access to information and freedom of speech) about which a country like Iran would be irritated. As Canadians, we wish it did.

Psiphon’s activities in Iran are not the first of their kind to generate intense media interest. Just a few months ago, a related project of ours, the Information Warfare Monitor, published a report called Tracking GhostNet that discovered a cyber-espionage system infecting government ministries and embassies in more than 103 countries. The case was splashed across the front pages of newspapers, and produced a powerful curiosity about cyber security around the world that continues unabated.

For us, the GhostNet revelations were surprising but not unexpected. Through our various research and commercial activities — the Information Warfare Monitor, the OpenNet Initiative and Psiphon — we have tracked, analyzed and, in some cases, tried to actively restrain the growing tendencies toward censorship, surveillance and militarization online.

According to the latest estimates of the OpenNet Initiative, more than 30 countries block access to some kind of information online. What is most disturbing is that many of them are increasingly doing so using a variety of subtle, indirect and flexible forms of controls: denial of service attacks against sources of information deemed strategically threatening, sometimes contracted out to criminal organizations; the use of targeted surveillance, like that which we discovered with Ghostnet; and threats and intimidation of ISPs to remove information at its source.

While much of the world’s attention is focused on Iran, Psiphon is involved in a very similar battle unfolding in a country nearby: Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, this crisis receives very little media scrutiny. In Kyrgyzstan, authorities have coerced ISPs to filter access to opposition websites leading up to elections in July. Working with Kyrygyz media and civil society, we have set up right-2know nodes and are pushing content into that country. This follows our active engagements in China-Tibet and in Burma.

Next up, will be another mission just like it. Perhaps it will be in Cambodia, or Egypt, or Thailand, or Uzbekistan. For us, the list grows daily.

Around the world, governments are engaged in a major arms race to develop and refine cyberwar capabilities. During the recent cyber security review, U. S. President Barack Obama’s administration publicly acknowledged the world’s worst kept secret: that as part of its comprehensive strategy for cybersecurity, the administration intends to develop operational capabilities to fight and win wars in cyberspace. Last week, the U. S. Department Of Defence announced the creation of U. S. cyberspace command. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom announced a Cybersecurity Czar of its own. From Bishkek to Baltimore, Tehran to Beijing, cyberspace is being militarized and weaponized.

Canada, like all other countries, will be drawn into the emerging battle. The question is, how will it engage?

As a country with a large geography and a distributed population, we have a unique historical appreciation of the critical importance of telecommunications. Canada is also home to some of the world’s greatest theorists of technology, from Harold Innis to Marshall McLuhan to William Gibson.

Drawing from that tradition, Canada should ensure that our values shape the future of cyberspace in line with our historic commitment to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rather than contributing to the fog and furor of cyberwar, we believe Canada should be a voice for transparency and restraint, and a force for the preservation of cyberspace as an open and unfettered commons worth securing as a whole.

Specifically, we put forward three proposals:

1. Canada should leverage its position among the G-8 to convene a meeting of major powers to formulate a Treaty of Cyberspace recognizing that this domain is now of equal importance to that of land, air, space and sea. Cybersecurity should not be just a question of national security but of global security. The preamble of this treaty should make it clear that cyberspace is a valuable global commons that should be protected and preserved for citizens of all the world.

2. Canada should take a leading role in defining international mechanisms for dealing with cyber incidents at a global level, including: cybercrime, denial of service attacks, viruses and cyberespionage networks of the type we encountered in Ghost-Net. None of the existing institutions — from Interpol to the Cybercrime Convention to NATO’s CyberCentre of Excellence to The ITU’s IMPACT — are properly established or mandated for the exchange of information and best practices required in this area. It is instructive that several months after the GhostNet investigation we have still not notified many of the affected parties because there has been no institution willing or able to facilitate that process.

3. Canada needs a foreign policy that explicitly includes cyberspace as a means for projecting Canadian values. This should include research and development into cyber technologies that promote free speech, privacy and access to information. Without wanting to sound self-serving, it is instructive to note that Psiphon, a “Canadian success story,” is entirely funded by U. S. and U. K. sources.

Perhaps after such steps are taken, there will be a real reason for Canadian envoys to be called before the dictators and authoritarians of the world.

Ronald Deibert is the director of the Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto, and co-founder of Psiphon inc. Rafal Rohozinski is a principal of The SecDev Group. He is a co-founder and CEO of Psiphon inc.

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