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Author: Governments Seek To Dominate The 'Wild West' Of Cyberspace


No country has dreamed about the potential of cyber longer than Russia. That's according to Alexander Klimburg, who argues that Russian cyber ambitions are nothing new, that for decades Russia has seen the potential for exercising control over information and over individuals. Klimburg is the author of a new book, "The Darkening Web." In it, Klimburg argues that to understand Russia's recent cyber intrusions into U.S. politics, not to mention other countries with aggressive cyber agendas - think China - that you have to understand this. The world divides into two broad factions on the basic question of how the Internet should run. I asked him, are those factions reconcilable?

ALEXANDER KLIMBURG: Well, they're reconcilable when they concentrate on what their common nightmares are. But they're not reconcilable when they think about what their common dreams are. So if we see it this way, for instance, for the West, the biggest threat is only that of cyberwar, of lights going out, power stations failing and similar. But for countries like China and Russia, the biggest threat is that the Internet will be used against their rule, that their regime might be undermined from outside by hostile information warfare campaigns.

KELLY: It sounds like what you're describing is almost a fundamentally different way of seeing the Internet - that a country like the United States sees it as an opportunity, a force for good, an an enabler. A country like Russia or China sees it as a threat.

KLIMBURG: I totally agree. I mean, originally, Russia viewed cyber, which is an old term, as being helpful for government. They've been trying to build an Internet since the '50s. And they always construed it as being a means of control. That's actually also what cyber actually means. It means, means of control in man and machine, and from that point of view, always was seen as being something beneficial.

But the Western view of the Internet and cyberspace, which is larger than the Internet, has always been disconnected from governments per se. So these different visions did compete, and one side, if you will, did win. But this is not the war that was won. It was just a battle overall. And the old views of seeing cyber as a means of control are still very much there.

KELLY: So I guess what makes that so interesting is how you reconcile the idea of Russia seeing the Internet as a threat and yet as this incredible tool in its arsenal that allows Russia to punch above its weight on the global stage.

KLIMBURG: I think that's an interesting question. I think the idea of Russia throwing its weight around more than it would otherwise be able to based on its economic might alone is a question that strategic observers have been debating for a number of years. But the other part of that question is that cyberspace fundamentally has been beneficial also to Russia, as it has been to China, particularly in economic ways. And therefore, now that they don't see themselves as being so reliant on a free Internet for economic growth, they are now trying to advance the control aspects. But to be frank, they've been doing that since the late '90s.

KELLY: Do you see any sort of parallels between the way that Russia and China are running their cyber policy at this point? I mean, obviously we're talking about two authoritarian states which would like to exercise more state control over the Internet than Western governments. However, we don't see - we're not hearing about Chinese interference in U.S. elections, for example. Why not?

KLIMBURG: Well, we were hearing a lot until quite recently about Chinese intellectual property theft. So we should keep in mind that when I started writing this book, the only thing people wanted to talk about was China. So China, after the prolonged intellectual property discussion or the theft of economic secrets, ended up making a deal under President Obama which did see theft of intellectual property decrease.

It also coincided with a massive reform of the People's Liberation Army by Xi Jinping, which means that Chinese cyber is now changing its focus. And one of the predictions is it will start to look more like Russian cyber. It will be more associated with intelligence rather than the military side. And also, it will focus more, perhaps, on government espionage and information warfare activities.

KELLY: This is really interesting. Do you have evidence of - that China is watching closely the way Russia is conducting itself in cyberspace and cyber warfare and learning accordingly?

KLIMBURG: Oh, there's abundant evidence for that because, obviously, China has been learning from Russia for decades. They are strategically aligned, at least in their philosophical outlook and also in their strategic thought. And much of what we actually know of Russian cyberthought comes through our interpretation of Chinese cyberthought, which is much easier to get ahold of. But it is clear that they are moving in a direction which is more aligned to what we think we know about Russian cyber capability.

So on many different levels, there's a close alignment between Chinese and Russian cyberthought, although they have different interests. The Chinese interest is much more economic-orientated. They depend on the global Internet more than Russia does. And they also see themselves as a rising power who doesn't have to push its luck. Russia doesn't necessarily see itself as a rising power and, therefore, is more concerned in securing gains now.

KELLY: Are Chinese cyber capabilities on a par with Russia? We hear so much about Russian capabilities here in the U.S. Are the Chinese just as good?

KLIMBURG: So overall, they're not even close. Chinese capabilities are traditionally much less advanced than Russian capabilities. And Russian capabilities are second only to the U.S. in sophistication. The U.S., of course, dominates the space and is completely incomparable with all other actors. Having said that, the Russian capabilities are so good, in part, because of the involvement of the nonstate sector, the cybercriminals. And those cybercriminals also sometimes work with Chinese actors and other nations. So just to keep in mind, we're only talking about China and Russia here, but there are at least nearly three dozen nations that are actively looking for offensive cyber capabilities.

KELLY: Well, let me end by asking you if you were to sit down and write the new edition for this book, what do you think the major threats would be? Where's all this going?

KLIMBURG: So my concern is that by construing cyberspace as a place of conflict, we will effectively see a trend developing amongst Western governments that questions how the Internet is currently managed. Now, governments don't have that much to say in cyberspace currently. It's run by the private sector, and it's built by civil society, right? So that dialogue is changing. And it seems to be implying that we're shifting into a direction where government would take over much more responsibility than it's previously had.

Now, this is exactly what countries like Russia and China would like. So it's really a case of trying to make sure that we, in the Western governments, don't allow our governments to be distracted. It's important to understand that cyberspace is an information domain. So all our political opinions, all our purchasing decisions, the way we educate our children, everything is in cyberspace. And we have to take extraordinary care that authoritarian interests don't gain more than a toehold in this domain.

KELLY: Alex Klimburg, thanks very much.

KLIMBURG: Thank you very much for your time.

KELLY: Alex Klimburg of Harvard and The Hague Center for Strategic Studies. His new book is "The Darkening Web: The War For Cyberspace."


Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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