The arms race with the United States caused the collapse of the USSR. What are Russia’s chances of winning in the current internet battlefield?
Following land, sea, air, and space, the internet has become the new battleground, where world powers continue to compete in an arms race. According to a recent report from the New York Times, U.S. President Obama will discuss the rules of internet warfare with Russian president Medvedev during his visit to Russia July 6 to July 8. However, given significant discrepancies on how to ensure internet security and develop international cooperation, this round of talks is extremely unlikely to reach an agreement.
The U.S. Alone Enjoys ‘Inherent Advantages’
Russian hackers are famous worldwide. Following its altercation with Georgia in August 2008, Russia can be said to have created a classic case of cyber war. Prior to military operations, Russia gained control of Georgia’s internet system, resulting in the paralysis of internet services required for Georgia’s transportation system, financial services and communications and media, and opening the door for an effortless military movement.
Despite the strength of Russia’s internet warfare capabilities, the core technology of the internet is still in the hands of the Americans, and Russia has yet to stand up to the real test. This is one reason why Russia is keen to develop international treaties related to internet warfare.
Since the birth of the internet, domain names and addresses have been controlled by the United States. In September 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was established. Though ICANN claimed to be a non-profit, private corporation, it was authorized by the U.S. Department of Commerce to be responsible for the international management of domain names and relevant internet technologies. In other words, the U.S. Department of Commerce has the right to overrule ICANN at any time.
The United States also holds the main arteries of the internet. Not only do the service mains of all countries have to go through the main routes in the U.S., but 10 of the 13 global internet name root servers are also in American hands. If already in control of the domain name of a certain country, the United States could make this country instantly ‘disappear’ from the internet.
America’s Strategic Trap?
America’s control of the internet stretches far beyond most people’s imaginations. Once the internet war breaks out, the U.S. government will make use of its terrifying powers over internet technology. Therefore, the United States is tempting other countries to begin the internet arms race. Once begun, America will exert its own online prowess on other, weaker countries, dragging them down.
On June 23, 2009, U.S. Defense Secretary Gates approved the creation of a unified U.S. Cyber Command, which, led by a four-star general, is among the ranks of the U.S. Air Force Space Command. Based on the evaluation of defense expert Joel Harding, who has already tracked the U.S. military's hacking project for 13 years, the American army has 3,000 to 5,000 information warfare specialists at the moment and 50,000 to 70,000 soldiers involved in cyber war. Adding the number of original electronic warfare staff, the U.S. online army currently numbers approximately 88,700.
U.S. defense contractors estimate that the U.S. Army's expenditures on internet-based warfare are over US$10 billion annually. In order to improve its ability to attack online, the U.S. Army is energetically developing weapons of cyber-war. They have accumulated over 2,000 computer viruses, and, if deemed necessary, could deploy them along with well-trained internet troops to launch cyber attacks at any time, invading other countries’ internet systems to damage, paralyze and even control them.
Hard to Establish the Rules
Should America prove to have better cyber warfare capabilities, Russia advocates cutting down on online offensive weapons, and insists that all countries sign a treaty to ban efforts to secretly implant malicious codes in the computer or internet systems of other countries in the future. Russia also suggests that all countries enhance their internet surveillance systems and avoid making cyber attacks on non-military objects or by devious methods.
The United States is opposed the development of an international treaty similar to the Chemical Weapons Convention for network warfare. The U.S. insists that all the countries cooperate and use international enforcement agencies to fight cyber crime. America’s excuse is that international treaties may work for governments, but hackers are still beyond their reach.
The United States announced in 2006 that it would join the Convention on Cybercrime, launched by the European Commission. In collaboration with multinational police, prosecution agencies and international law enforcement agencies, it has cracked down on internet attackers.
However, suspicious of violations of its sovereignty, Russia has declined to accede to the Convention on Cybercrime because it grants the police of other countries permission to conduct cross-boundary investigations into network crimes without informing state parties.
In other words, in an effort to protect its own economic strength, Russia would rather utilize international treaties to prevent America's development of internet warfare rather than to take part in an online 'arms race.' Meanwhile, the United States wants to lure other countries into participating in an online 'arms race.' Acting as the ‘international police’ of cyber world, the U.S. could utilize certain clauses and excuses to infringe on the sovereignty of other countries or intervene in their domestic affairs.
The author of this article is a Professor at Chengdu University of Information Technology.