China’s “splinternet” will create an alternative state-controlled cyberspace | Flavia Kenyon
VSyberspace is a huge unregulated mess. A virtual Wild West where sophisticated criminal gangs ply their trade alongside multinational corporations, spy agencies, activists, influential celebrities – and nation states. The question of who governs it is one of the most important of our time.
Britain must be, if not fully in power, at least a global force for good in the expanding virtual world. The problem has never been so pressing. Six years ago I acted as a coder in the UK’s biggest phishing scam case. The malware my client and others created was so sophisticated that the police could not decode it but were able to show that it was being used for fraudulent purposes. The financial data collected was stored on two servers, one in France and one in the United States, and the lack of international cooperation meant that the police never got their hands on it.
The case is almost ancient history in terms of cyber. Today, this same type of malware is used on a scale previously unimaginable in ransomware attacks targeting national infrastructures, such as the The American oil pipeline operator Colonial last month, the NHS in 2017, and even the city of baltimore.
Dominic Raab, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the closest we have to a cyber-minister, signaled his determination to make Britain a global technological superpower, protecting the world’s most vulnerable countries, during a historic cyber summit in London in May. But the signs are there that his government is grossly underestimating the scariest cyber scenario of all: the possible fragmentation of the Internet.
Raab said Britain must shape cyberspace according to “our values”, while preventing China, Russia and others from “filling the multilateral void”. What does he mean? It all seems so abstract, so far removed from our daily life.
It refers to the invisible battle for control of cyberspace and the ideological imperative that we liberal democracies emerge triumphant, to imbue the rest of the world with “our values”.
As part of the mission, Raab announced a £ 22million investment in a British-funded cyber operations center in Africa, hoping the continent could be enticed and play the role of a cyber ally. The bad news is that Africa has already found a partner.
It has been showered with Chinese investment for decades. As of this writing, Beijing is considering laying submarine cables along the west and east coasts of Africa to provide internet access to previously neglected towns and villages. Connectivity looks like progress, and many in Africa are understandably happy.
But here’s the problem: the Chinese are build their own internet, in a potential fragmentation that has been called the “splinternet,” an alternate cyberspace that Britain can’t even peek into unless invited to. Many developing countries are likely to join.
The Chinese version of cyberspace would be separate and ideologically distinct. Beijing is not interested in improving the existing Internet in an interoperable and open way, or in helping the world become more resilient to cyber attacks. It is committed to creating a completely different digital architecture, with its own ideological governance and its own values - and incompatible with ours.
In building this architecture, the Chinese turned to an unlikely freedom-loving technology: blockchain. It’s a word that puzzles a lot of people. But it’s just a decentralized digital network made up of blocks of data stored on nodes – and all of our laptops could be nodes tied in a chain, which means we’re all connected without censorship or disruption.
Part of the appeal of blockchain is believed to be that it is a peer-to-peer system with no middlemen and, most importantly, no central power. But China plans to reverse that because the Chinese state would own the blockchain and have its agents operating every node. The Chinese Communist Party would have the power to monitor every communication in perpetuity.
The blockchain would become an overpowered tracking device and data warehouse on an unimaginable scale. How will Britain’s African cyberhub help prevent all of this?
Any country joining the Chinese splinternet would almost certainly expose its population to the same levels of state control. For some leaders, this would be tolerated as a byproduct of China’s technological benevolence, as Beijing distributes free internet to Africa. For others, it would be welcomed as an opportunity to subdue their own people. This would indeed herald the start of a new Cold War-style split, not between East and West, but between an open and free Internet, and an Internet used to control and oppress.
It’s a grim view, but one that China seems to be embracing with determination. Another manifestation is its potential for budgetary surveillance, through its new digital currency, the state-backed digital yuan, controlled by the People’s Bank of China.
Raab’s vision of Britain ‘shaping cyberspace to our values’ is laudable, but in such a rapidly fragmented cyberspace, in which China has the tools and desire to dominate the global community, it risks looking rather odd. .