Saturday, December 21, 2002

On Securing Cyberspace and the Role of Researchers

From the NY Times: The Bush administration is planning to propose requiring Internet service providers to help build a centralized system to enable broad monitoring of the Internet and, potentially, surveillance of its users.

A corporate lawyer said that "Internet service providers are concerned about the privacy implications of this as well as liability, since providing access to live feeds of network activity could be interpreted as a wiretap or as the 'pen register' and 'trap and trace' systems used on phones without a judicial order." And a government spokesperson said "the need for a large-scale operations center is real because Internet service providers and security companies and other online companies only have a view of the part of the Internet that is under their control. We don't have anybody that is able to look at the entire picture. When something is happening, we don't know it's happening until it's too late."

I am solidly behind decentralisation and proposals like this violate my political values and dreams for cyberspace. But I take comfort in our inability to delineate the "entire picture" - at best we can abstract a stable whole from the flow of its parts, and that can never be "true". Of course, that usually doesn't stop people from legislating it as though it were...

One official compared the system to Carnivore: "Am I analogizing this to Carnivore? Absolutely. But in fact, it's 10 times worse. Carnivore was working on much smaller feeds and could not scale. This is looking at the whole Internet."

Forgive my ignorance - but is this actually possible? I would have thought the decentralised nature of the Internet would effectively prevent this... And if so, there's still hope.

But this makes me think of something else: the desire and ability to "secure" cyberspace. In the past, anthropologists have learned the hard way how their research could be (mis)used to promote government agendas. During the second world war, Nazi archaeologists planted artefacts as a means of claiming cultural continuity in geographical space - which they used to justify their "territorial expansion". Incidentally, this methodology (minus the planting of artefacts!) is currently used in Native land claims. Cultural provenance and continuity is established archaeologically and accepted as legal justification for "ownership" of the land. Sort of along the lines of "home" being where you bury your dead, and not just where your people are born. Anyway, ethnographies have also been used many times to understand cultural differences in order to "aid" the war-time internment of particular peoples, like the Japanese. There are many more examples, but my concern here is that in times of political strife (war-like conditions) governments turn to their "best" researchers to better understand the "enemy".

In the so-called War on Terrorism, the enemy is not only located in physical space(s) but is also understood to occupy virtual space(s). As such, in our individual and collective politics, ethnographies and other social accounts of cyberspace become as relevant as do more traditional "real-world" cultural accounts. And social and cultural researchers cannot afford to be apolitical in their work - any claim for objectivity should be dissuaded! Our work has never been value-free and it's time for cyberspace researchers to take responsibility for their work and understand its possible implications. Each account of the virtual that we produce can be used by others (with different intentions) to justify their actions. In "securing" cyberspace, there will be a need to define precisely "what cyberspace is" and researchers will be instrumental in providing the information that influences international policy decisions.

We should be holistic in our approach, and be able to imagine our work after it leaves our hands. We should be critical and humane in our analyses and ensure that the welfare of all people is considered. We should engage the larger public as much as possible because this is not the time to claim elitist knowledge. We should be clear on our values and ethics and not exclude them from formal papers. And we should choose our words carefully.

I'm up for the challenge. How about you?

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