In a recent article in the National Post, Ronald Deibert and Rafal Rohozinsky discussed the need for Canada to plan a strategy for dealing with the cyberwar that many states will undoubtedly be dragged into. They argued that increased security threats, such as the recently discovered GhostNet spy system that attacked ministries and embassies across the globe, and the fact that other nations are preparing themselves with their own initiatives, should all be grounds for our government to begin taking this issue more seriously and to work with other groups and nations to address common problems. Since they believe cyberspace to be a global commons that should be enjoyed by all, concerted efforts ought to be made to secure it.
Deibert and Rohozinsky also argued that Canada should have a more general cyberspace policy of promoting access to information and freedom of speech, citing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as support for this notion. It should be noted that they are co-founders of Psiphon Inc., which describes its main product as “a system that provides access to web content in locations where it is filtered or censored”.
When the recent unrest in Iran began over its contested election results, the authorities there immediately cracked down on communications and media from foreign outlets. A friend of mine had actually decided months ago that he would visit Iran a few days before the election. After eventually being able to access internet a few days into the protests, he told me that it was likely that I had more knowledge of the unfolding events than he did. Despite these setbacks, social networking sites and programs like Psiphon allowed the Iranian people to voice their opinions and organize rallies on the streets to express their frustrations with the government. At one point, an official at the White House even contacted Twitter and asked that they delay their scheduled maintenance of the site in order to allow the service to continue undisrupted for the benefit of protestors. Such technology is obviously playing a key role in the dissemination of information and the empowerment of those who would otherwise be at the mercy of governments who have evolved their authoritarian measures to keep up with modern times.
So how can Canada accomplish the two major goals of increasing security and protecting the freedom of obtaining information within cyberspace? The authors provide three main suggestions: pushing for the creation of a Treaty of Cyberspace with major economic powers, developing mechanisms to share information and deal with threats to the security of cyberspace on a global level, and standing by a foreign policy that includes cyberspace as a means for projecting our values by researching and implementing projects similar to Psiphon.
With regards to the first point, it was stated that “cyberspace is a valuable global commons that should be protected and preserved for citizens of all the world”. Though the promotion of this idea through a treaty is a noble goal, as with many treaties, I wonder how effective such an effort would actually be. Keeping in mind the current existence of clandestine espionage agencies and the nature of cyberspace itself, it will likely remain a difficult task to enforce these provisions, or even realize when they are being broken. Also, as can often be the case with treaties, they may sometimes result in the exacerbation of pre-existing divisions between those who sign on and those who do not, especially with respect to subject matter such as security.
The authors bring up the lack of communication between states about threats to cyber-security, and that existing bodies such as Interpol do not have the mandate to exchange information about such threats. The second suggestion may have a similar weakness as the first, in that many states may not be willing to share a lot of their own information, since it could potentially compromise some of their own operations and techniques. Of course, this is not to say that no value will come out of such information-sharing mechanisms.
It is possible that the third suggestion may even run counter to the first. If Canada were to support research into technologies that promote free speech, privacy, and access to information, this will likely be against the wishes of countries that do not espouse these values, some of them being signatories to the proposed treaty. These efforts may even be considered as security threats to the systems put in place in some of these countries and will naturally be described by such governments as attacks on sovereignty.
All of these potential snags do not invalidate efforts for providing security and encouraging freedom in cyberspace; with such an important resource at stake, it is only sensible that we try. Unfortunately, the global historical problem of the struggle for power remains fairly unresolved, both between and within nations, and it has in fact taken on a new dimension in the current electronic age. Effectively tackling these emerging issues, in order to achieve objectives shared by like-minded nations with similar ideals but various needs, will take a lot of diplomatic tact. Though difficult, this is an opportunity for Canada to play an important role on a global scale. Additionally, protecting what is arguably the most influential medium of information to ever exist ought to be an imperative for all free and democratic states.