Cyberwar. Cyberdefense. Cyberattack. Cybercommand.
You run across these four words before you finish the first paragraph of this New York Times story (as reposted on msnbc.com). It's about government plans to secure our technical infrastructure.
When you reach the end of the story, though, you still don't know what it's about. But you do get a sense of coming inroads against Americans' online privacy.
The problem, which the federal government has assumed to tackle, is the nominal insecurity of networks, computers, and data. And the approach the federal government has assumed is the most self-gratifying: "Cyber" is a "strategic national asset." It's up to the defense, intelligence, and homeland security bureaucracies to protect it.
But what is "cyber"?
With the Internet and other technologies, we are creating a new communications and commerce "space." And just like the real spaces we are so accustomed to, there are security issues. Some of the houses have flimsy locks on the front doors. Some of the stores leave merchandise on the loading docks unattended. Some office managers don't lock the desk drawers that hold personnel files. Some of the streets can be too easily flooded with water. Some of the power lines can be too easily snapped.
These are problems that should be corrected, but we don't call on the federal government to lock up our homes, merchandise, and personnel files. We don't call on the federal government to fix roads and power lines (deficit "stimulus" spending aside). The federal government secures its own assets, but that doesn't make all assets a federal responsibility or a military problem.
As yet, I haven't seen an explanation of how an opponent of U.S. power would use "cyberattack" to advance any of its aims. If it's even possible, which I doubt, taking down our banking system for a few days would not "soften up" the country for a military attack. Knocking out the electrical system in one region of the country for a day wouldn't let Russia take control of the Bering Strait. Shutting down Americans' access to Google Calendar wouldn't advance Islamists' plans for a worldwide Muslim caliphate.
This is why President Obama's speech on cybersecurity retreated to a contrived threat he called "weapons of mass disruption." Fearsome inconvenience!
The story quotes one government official as follows:
"How do you understand sovereignty in the cyberdomain?” General Cartwright asked. “It doesn’t tend to pay a lot of attention to geographic boundaries.”
That's correct. "Cyber" is not a problem that affects our sovereignty or the integrity of our national boundaries. Thus, it's not a problem for the defense or intelligence establishments to handle.
The benefits of the online world vastly outstrip the risks - sorry Senator Rockefeller. With those benefits come a variety of problems akin to graffiti, house fires, street closures, petit theft, and organized crime. Those are not best handled by centralized bureaucracies, but by the decentralized systems we use to secure the real world: property rights, contract and tort liability, private enterprise, and innovation.