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Piracy on the Cyber High Seas

I am an old movie fan. Preferably those from the mid-20th century when the so-called “studio system” still reigned and television was nearly unknown. Recently, I was watching movie actor Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling English pirate raiding ships and stealing Spanish gold for Queen and country. In that period, the expansive British were rubbing up against the established Spanish for a position in the New World. Piracy was a cheap and effective way to both aggrandize and “send a message.”

We seem to be running into a version of that piracy in the new dimension of Cyber Space where government-sponsored privateering is taking place in bigger and more aggressive ways every day. In the most recent example, the New York Times admitted it had been raided by Chinese “privateers.” Reporter’s notes and sources captured and a message sent that Beijing wished to impose its will over one of America’s premier “old media” outlets.

In modern pirate language, Beijing said “cool it “and back off the human rights and corruption reporting. You’ve been warned. We don’t like your coverage of us. And we can screw with you from 8,000 miles away. Worse, we now know who some of your sources are. They are likely to receive a visit from the local authorities or worse. And, by the way, we can do this to other critical media outlets.

An act of intimidation is hardly new in world history. Nation-states have committed acts of aggression against opposition states in time and memoriam from outright combat to propaganda. American and the USSR engaged in a Cold (and sometimes Hot) War for nearly fifty years on this basis.

With this act against the New York Times by the Chinese, we now face clearly the idea that a nation-state can try to enforce its will on an individual private actor inside the United States. Moreover, they have done so to an actor that is not a part of the national security or industrial base.

This act must be responded to swiftly and aggressively. And Washington seems not yet prepared to deal with it.

The U.S. Government is simply mired in its artificial, Cold War-based concerns about the separation of government and private interests on the Internet. We have twisted ourselves in legal knots over what the National Security Agency can do domestically, what the Department of Homeland Security should provide for the private sector, and what information businesses should provide to the government and among themselves. Countries live and decline by their belief systems. Great Britain fell from dominance because it could not adapt to the machine warfare of the 20th century.

Our current fate is now tied to how with deal with the cyber warfare of the 21st century in a space where there are no borders and no boundaries. Conflict is cyberspace is not declared war. It simply exists in a state of low intensity conflict like guerrilla war.

So where are we heading in cyberspace protection over the next few months. We will see an Executive Order (E.O.) in cyber come from the President. Capitol Hill will put forward cyber bills – mostly placeholders now awaiting the White House E.O. Private industry will position itself to embrace light regulation, information sharing, and indemnity/protection for its losses.

In the middle of all this 20th century deck chair shuffling and position taking, we must deal with the issue of nation-sponsored piracy. We cannot allow our private industry to be attacked and its secrets stripped. Nor can we allow our institutions to be acted upon to send a message of political threat and intimidation. We need to counterattack and let those perpetrators know they have crossed a line we will not tolerate. Nasty diplomatic memos will not do. We have a Cyber Command. Let’s use it.

Ronald Marks blogs on national security, domestic intelligence and national intelligence issues. Read More