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National Security Means What, Again?

There have been any number of concerns about Elon Musk’s behaviour, and especially in the recent weeks and months. This has led some commentators to warn that his purchase of Twitter may raise national security risks. Gill and Lehrich try to make this argument in their article, “Elon Musk Owning Twitter is A National Security Threat.” They give three reasons:

First, Musk is allegedly in communication with foreign actors – including senior officials in the Kremlin and Chinese Communist Party – who could use his acquisition of Twitter to undermine American national security.

Will Musk’s foreign investors have influence over Twitter’s content moderation policies? Will the Chinese exploit their significant leverage over Musk to demand he censor criticism of the CCP, or turn the dials up for posts that sow distrust in democracy?

Finally, it’s not just America’s information ecosystem that’s at stake, it’s also the private data of American citizens.

It’s worth noting that at no point do the authors provide a definition for ‘national security’, which causes the reader to have to guess what they likely mean. More broadly, in journalistic and opinion circle communities there is a curious–and increasingly common–conjoining of national security and information security. The authors themselves make this link in the kicker paragraph of their article, when they write

It is imperative that American leaders fully understand Musk’s motives, financing, and loyalties amidst his bid to acquire Twitter – especially given the high-stakes geopolitical reality we are living in now. The fate of American national security and our information ecosystem hang in the balance.1

Information security, generally, is focused on dangers which are associated with true or false information being disseminated across a population. It is distinguished from cyber security, and which is typically focused on the digital security protocols and practices that are designed to reduce technical computer vulnerabilities. Whereas the former focuses on a public’s mind the latter attends to how their digital and physical systems are hardened from being technically exploited.

Western governments have historically resisted authoritarian governments attempts to link the concepts of information security and cyber security. The reason is that authoritarian governments want to establish international principles and norms, whereby it becomes appropriate for governments to control the information which is made available to their publics under the guise of promoting ‘cyber security’. Democratic countries that emphasise the importance of intellectual freedom, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and other core rights have historically been opposed to promoting information security norms.

At the same time, misinformation and disinformation have become increasingly popular areas of study and commentary, especially following Donald Trump’s election as POTUS. And, in countries like the United States, Trump’s adoption of lies and misinformation was often cast as a national security issue: correct information should be communicated, and efforts to intentionally communicate false information should be blocked, prohibited, or prevented from massively circulating.

Obviously Trump’s language, actions, and behaviours were incredibly destabilising and abominable for an American president. And his presence on the world stage arguably emboldened many authoritarians around the world. But there is a real risk in using terms like ‘national security’ without definition, especially when the application of ‘national security’ starts to stray into the domain of what could be considered information security. Specifically, as everything becomes ‘national security’ it is possible for authoritarian governments to adopt the language of Western governments and intellectuals, and assert that they too are focused on ‘national security’ whereas, in fact, these authoritarian governments are using the term to justify their own censorious activities.

Now, does this mean that if we are more careful in the West about our use of language that authoritarian governments will become less censorious? No. But being more careful and thoughtful in our language, public argumentation, and positioning of our policy statements we may at least prevent those authoritarian governments from using our discourse as a justification for their own activities. We should, then, be careful and precise in what we say to avoid giving a fig leaf of cover to authoritarian activities.

And that will start by parties who use terms like ‘national security’ clearly defining what they mean, such that it is clear how national security is different from informational security. Unless, of course, authors and thinkers are in fact leaning into the conceptual apparatus of repressive governments in an effort to save democratic governance. For any author who thinks such a move is wise, however, I must admit that I harbour strong doubts of the efficacy or utility of such attempts.


  1. Emphasis not in original. ↩︎
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Which States Most Require ‘Democratic Support’?

Roland Paris and Jennifer Walsh have an excellent, and thought-provoking, column in the Globe and Mail where they argue that Western democracies need to adopt a ‘democratic support’ agenda. Such an agenda has multiple points comprising:

  1. States getting their own democratic houses in order;
  2. States defending themselves and other democracies against authoritarian states’ attempts to disrupt democracies or coerce residents of democracies;
  3. States assisting other democracies which are at risk of slipping toward authoritarianism.

In principle, each of these points make sense and can interoperate with one another. The vision is not to inject democracy into states but, instead, to protect existing systems and demonstrate their utility as a way of weaning nations towards adopting and establishing democratic institutions. The authors also assert that countries like Canada should learn from non-Western democracies, such as Korea or Taiwan, to appreciate how they have maintained their institutions in the face of the pandemic as a way to showcase how ‘peer nations’ also implement democratic norms and principles.

While I agree with the positions the authors suggest, far towards the end of the article they delicately slip in what is the biggest challenge to any such agenda. Namely, they write:

Time is short for Canada to articulate its vision for democracy support. The countdown to the 2024 U.S. presidential election is already under way, and no one can predict its outcome. Meanwhile, two of Canada’s closest democratic partners in Europe, Germany and France, may soon turn inward, preoccupied by pivotal national elections that will feature their own brands of populist politics.1

In warning that the United States may be an unreliable promoter of democracy (and, by extension, human rights and international rules and order which have backstopped Western-dominated world governance for the past 50 years) the authors reveal the real threat. What does it mean when the United States is regarded as likely to become more deeply mired in internecine ideological conflicts that absorbs its own attention, limits its productive global engagements, and is used by competitor and authoritarian nations to warn of the consequences of “American-style” democracy?

I raise these questions because if the authors’ concerns are fair (and I think they are) then any democracy support agenda may need to proceed with the presumption that the USA may be a wavering or episodic partner in associated activities. To some extent, assuming this position would speak more broadly to a recognition that the great power has significantly fallen. To even take this as possible–to the extent that contingency planning is needed to address potential episodic American commitment to the agenda of buttressing democracies–should make clear that the American wavering is the key issue: in a world where the USA is regarded as unreliable, what does this mean for other democracies and how they support fellow democratic states? Do countries, such as Canada and others with high rule-of-law democratic governments, focus first and foremost on ‘supporting’ US democracy? And, if so, what does this entail? How do you support a flailing and (arguably) failing global hegemon?

I don’t pretend to have the answers. But it seems that when we talk about supporting democracies, and can’t rely on the USA to show up in five years, then the metaphorical fire isn’t approaching our house but a chunk of the house is on fire. And that has to absolutely be our first concern: can we put out the fire and save the house, or do we need to retreat with our children and most precious objects and relocate? And, if we must retreat…to where do we retreat?


  1. Emphasis not in original. ↩︎
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To What Extent is China’s Control of Information a Cyber Weakness?

Lawfare has a good piece on How China’s control of information is a cyber weakness:

“Policymakers need to be aware that successful competition in cyberspace depends on having intrinsic knowledge of the consequences a democratic or authoritarian mode of government has for a country’s cyber defense. Western leaders have for a long time prioritized security of physical infrastructure. This might translate into better cyber defense capabilities, but it leaves those governments open to information operations. At the same time, more authoritarian-leaning countries may have comparative advantages when it comes to defending against information operations but at the cost of perhaps being more vulnerable to cyber network attack and exploitation. Authoritarian governments may tolerate this compromise on security due to their prioritization of surveillance and censorship practices.

I have faith that professionals in the intelligence community have previously assessed this divide between what democracies have developed defences against versus what countries like China have prepared against. Nonetheless this is a helpful summary of the two sides of the coin.

I’m less certain of a subsequent argument made in the same piece:

These diverging emphases on different aspects of cybersecurity by democratic and authoritarian governments are not new. However, Western governments have put too much emphasis on the vulnerability of democracies to information operations, and not enough attention has been dedicated to the vulnerability of authoritarian regimes in their cyber defenses. It is crucial for democratic governments to assess the impact of information controls and regime security considerations in authoritarian-leaning countries for their day-to-day cyber operations.”

I really don’t think that intelligence community members in the West are ignorant of the vulnerabilities that may be present in China or other authoritarian jurisdictions. While the stories in Western media emphasize how effective foreign operators are extracting data from Western companies and organizations, intelligence agencies in the Five Eyes are also deeply invested in penetrating strategically and tactically valuable digital resources abroad. One of the top-line critiques against the Five Eyes is that they have invested heavily on offence over defence, and the article from Lawfare doesn’t really ever take that up. Instead, and inaccurately to my mind, it suggests that cyber defence is something done with a truly serious degree of resourcing in the Five Eyes. I have yet to find someone in the intelligence community that would seriously assert a similar proposition.

One thing that isn’t assessed in the article, and which would have been interesting to see considered, is the extent(s) to which the relative dearth of encryption in China better enables their defenders to identify and terminate exfiltration of data from their networks. Does broader visibility into data networks enhance Chinese defenders’ operations? I have some doubts, but it would be curious to see the arguments for and against that position.