Thesis #25

The only three regimes that really understand the Internet are the Russians, the Chinese — and the North Koreans

This thesis will raise eyebrows and hackles in the West, but the evidence for it is intriguing and seems persuasive. The thesis will also seem strange to some people since the Internet originated in the United States.

The three regimes are very different but they share one important characteristic — they are all highly authoritarian in nature. The arguments for the thesis are different for each.

Russia: It was early in revising its military doctrine to incorporate ‘information operations’ into its overall strategy — the so-called Gerasimov doctrine, named after its author, who was the Chief of the Russian General Staff. The doctrine lays out a new theory of modern warfare — one “that looks more like hacking an enemy’s society than attacking it head-on”. The approach, according to Politico, is

”guerrilla, and waged on all fronts with a range of actors and tools—for example, hackers, media, businessmen, leaks and, yes, fake news, as well as conventional and asymmetric military means. Thanks to the internet and social media, the kinds of operations Soviet psy-ops teams once could only fantasize about—upending the domestic affairs of nations with information alone—are now plausible. The Gerasimov Doctrine builds a framework for these new tools, and declares that non-military tactics are not auxiliary to the use of force but the preferred way to win. That they are, in fact, the actual war. Chaos is the strategy the Kremlin pursues: Gerasimov specifies that the objective is to achieve an environment of permanent unrest and conflict within an enemy state.”

The US Presidential election of 2016 has shown us this doctrine in action. It suggests a profound understanding of the affordances of social media and the nature of our ‘attention economy’. It represents a dramatic departure from age-old thinking about information warfare and propaganda. The aim now is not to try to get your message through, but to flood an enemy society with all kinds of messages (some of which may even be true) so that in the end the target population feels overwhelmed and “doesn’t know who to believe”.

China: Western thinking about China and the Internet has proved delusionary. The assumption was that since the Chinese regime wished to modernise China, it would need the Internet, and that the network would inevitably lead to pressures to more openness and the infusion of liberal democratic ideas. The Chinese regime, in other words, could have the Internet or it could have authoritarianism, but not both. This was a variation on earlier theories that since the regime wanted capitalism, then it would have to have democracy, since the two — (pace) Francis Fukuyama — always go together.

Both of these wishful theories turned out to be spectacular misjudgements. The Chinese regime which — at its higher levels — is highly technocratic decided to have the Internet without its libertarian affordances. And they found a way of doing this by devoting huge resources and ingenuity to the task. We know this because of pioneering investigative research by the Harvard social scientist Gary King and his colleagues. So China now has a very large and vibrant Internet, huge online industries and formidable technical and hacking capabilities. They have invented what the scholar Rebecca Mackinnon calls networked authoritarianism.

North Korea: This is the most unlikely member of the trio.

The thought that a country which until recently had only about 1,000 internet addresses could inflict serious damage on a nuclear-tipped superpower was regarded as preposterous. Evidence of North Korean prowess in cyber operations has been steadily mounting. In 2016 North Korean hackers went within a keystroke of stealing a billion dollars from the New York Federal Reserve and were stopped only by a spelling mistake: a bogus withdrawal request misspelled “foundation” as “fandation”. Even so, they got away with $81m.

Two years earlier, they had pulled off a devastating attack on Sony Pictures that resulted in the theft of thousands of documents, the wiping of internal data centres and the destruction of 75% of the company’s servers. But the coup de grace came in September 2016 when they penetrated the HQ of South Korea’s defence network – and stole a trove of top-secret files, including American and South Korean operational plans for wartime action.

This the strategic insight that underpins North Korea’s pivot to cyber operations. It suggests that Kim Jong-un’s regime has understood how digital technology can convert industrial and economic weakness into a strength. The reason why major industrialised countries hold back from responding in kind to one another’s cyber attacks is because their societies are all critically dependent on complex, fragile and insecure network infrastructures. They all fear the unfathomable consequences of retaliation and so a doctrine of mutually assured destruction keeps an uneasy peace in cyberspace. North Korea, however, doesn’t have much of a digital infrastructure and so has less to fear.

Further reading

Gerasimov article:

Molly McKew, “The Gerasimov Doctrine’, Politico,September/October 2017.

Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts, “Reverse-engineering censorship in China: Randomized experimentation and participant observation.” Science, 345, 2014, 6199, pp. 1-10.

Rebecca MacKinnon, “Liberation Technology: China’s ‘Networked Authoritarianism’”, Journal of Democracy, 22(2), pp. 32-46, April 2011.

David Sanger, Avid Sanger, David Kirkpatrick and Nicole Perlroth, “The World Once Laughed at North Korean Cyberpower. No More.”, New York Times, 15 October 2017.

John Naughton, “North Korea’s deadliest weapon? Its hackers”, Observer, 22 October 2017.