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Will the Apocalypse Arrive Online?

How fear of cyber attack could take down your liberties and the Constitution.

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For those of us who have lived inside the national security conversation for more than a decade now, such early warnings of dire consequences might sound tediously familiar, just another example of the (George W.) Bush who cried wolf. After all, in the wake of the actual 9/11 attacks, governmental overreach became commonplace, based on fear-filled scenarios of future doom.  Continual hysteria over a domestic terror threat and (largely nonexistent) al-Qaeda “sleeper cells” bent on chaos led to the curtailing of the civil liberties of large segments of the American Muslim population and, more generally, far greater surveillance of Americans.  That experience should indeed make us suspicious of doomsday predictions and distrustful of claims that extraordinary measures are necessary to protect “national security.”

For the moment, though, let’s pretend that we haven’t been through a decade in which national security needs were used and sometimes overblown to trump constitutional protections. Instead, let’s take the recent cyber claims at face value and assume that Richard Clarke, who prior to 9/11 warned continuously of an impending attack by al-Qaeda, is correct again.

And while we’re not dismissing these apocalyptic warnings, let’s give a little before-the-fact thought not just to the protection of the nation’s resources, information systems, and infrastructure, but to what’s likely to happen to rights, liberties, and the rule of law once we’re swept away by cyber fears. If you imagined that good old fashioned rights and liberties were made obsolete by the Bush administration’s Global War on Terror, any thought experiment you perform on what a response to cyber war might entail is far worse.

Remember former White House Council Alberto Gonzales telling us that, when it came to the interrogation of suspected terrorists, the protections of the U.S. Constitution were “quaint and obsolete”? Remember the argument, articulated by many, that torture, Guantanamo, and warrantless wiretapping were all necessary to prevent another 9/11 , whatever they did to our liberties and laws?

Now, fast forward to the new cyber era, which, we are already being told, is at least akin to the threat of 9/11 (and possibly far worse).  And keep in mind that, if the fears rise high enough, many of the sorts of moves against rights and constitutional restraints that came into play only after 9/11 might not need an actual cyber disaster.  Just the fear of one might do the trick.

Not surprisingly, the language of cyber defense, as articulated by Panetta and others, borrows from the recent lexicon of counterterrorism. In Panetta’s words, “Just as [the Pentagon] developed the world’s finest counterterrorism force over the past decade, we need to build and maintain the finest cyber operators.”

The Cyber Threat to American Rights and Liberties

Cyber is “a new terrain for warfare,” Panetta tells us, a “battlefield of the future.” So perhaps it’s time to ask two questions: In a world of cyber fear, what has the war on terror taught us about protecting ourselves from the excesses of government? What do policymakers, citizens, and civil libertarians need to think about when it comes to rights that would potentially be threatened in the wake of, or even in anticipation of, a cyber attack?

Here, then, are several potential threats to constitutional liberties, democratic decision-making processes, and the rule of law to watch out for in this new cyber war era:  

The Threat to Privacy: In the war on terror, the government -- thanks to the Patriot Act and the warrantless surveillance program, among other efforts -- expanded its ability to collect information on individuals suspected of terrorism. It became a net that could snag all sorts of Americans in all sorts of ways. In cyber space, of course, the potential for collecting, sharing, and archiving data on individuals, often without a warrant, increases exponentially, especially when potential attacks may target information itself.