As the U.S. and China trade accusations as to who is the real cyber assailant, Cold War tropes have become commonplace in describing digital dispute between Beijing and Washington. From then Secretary of State Clinton’s 2010 comments about censorship and the samizdat of our day, to evocative descriptions of cyber conflict echoing through headlines and policy analysis reports, an updated Iron Curtain is being referenced by commentators to describe both the possibilities of cyberwar and the way that information is being controlled in the modern world. With cybersecurity set to top the agenda at next week’s meeting between Presidents Xi and Obama in California, an opinion piece from the New York Times offers a different metaphor from military history to describe the cyber situation:
[…T]reating today’s Beijing like Brezhnev’s Moscow distorts the nature of the threat and how Washington should respond to it.
In confronting today’s cyberbattles, the United States should think less about Soviets and more about pirates. Indeed, today’s cybercompetition is less like the cold war than the battle for the New World.
In the era after the discovery of the Americas, European states fought for mastery over the Atlantic. Much like the Internet today, the ocean then was a primary avenue for trade and communication that no country could cordon off.
At that time, the Spanish empire boasted a fearsome navy, but it could not dominate the seas. Poorer and weaker England tested Spain’s might by encouraging and equipping would-be pirates to act on its behalf without official sanction. These semi-state-sponsored privateers robbed Spain of gold and pride as they raided ships off the coasts of the New World and Spain itself, enriching the English crown while augmenting its naval power. Spain’s inability to attribute the attacks directly to England allowed Queen Elizabeth I to level the playing field in an arena lacking laws or customs.
Today’s cyberbattles aren’t so different.
[…T]he cold war model of a struggle with calibrated boundaries, clear rules, and the threat of mutual assured destruction simply doesn’t fit cyberspace. [Source]