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Bull Session, Podcast

Cyber Policy and Cyber War

January 18, 2018          

Episode Summary

This week on The Digital Life, we chat about international law and cyber war. According to a World Economic Forum article, over 30 governments have acknowledged that they have offensive cyber capabilities including: espionage and spying; sabotage including denial-of-service attacks and attacks on the power grid; and, perhaps the most talked about recently, propaganda.

The difficulties of developing policy to regulate and respond to emerging technology like these cyber war capabilities highlights the problems of working within interlocking, complex systems of governmental and political process, meant for a previous era, that are now subject to rapid changes.

And managing policy within the areas of fast moving emerging technologies—from software to genomics to robotics—will only get more difficult. What is the right way, or is there even a right way for governments and societies to respond to this need for laws and regs? Join us as we discuss.
Why we urgently need a Digital Geneva Convention


Welcome to episode 241 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.

Greetings listeners.

For our podcast this week, we’re going to talk a little bit about policy and emerging technology, in particular about cyberspace, international law, and cyber warfare. The impetus for this particular episode was a article on the World Economic Forum website entitled “Why We Urgently Need A Digital Geneva Convention”, which I thought was a provocative title, and which may or may not be true policy wise, but I think it’s a nice jumping off point for us today, Dirk.
More than 30 governments having acknowledged that they have offensive cyber capabilities, according to this article. I think over the past year, we’ve talked an awful lot about the different aspects of cyber war that have just become part of our day to day existence in our digital lives. One of the examples played a really significant part in our recent elections in the United States in 2016, of course, and that is the use of information warfare and hacking and fake news to drive propaganda and to more or less create an environment where certain messages that may or may not be true are getting a lot of attention and, thereby, sowing confusion and potentially influencing elections. That’s one aspect of cyber war.
Another one that we’ve talked about extensively on the show is the malware that can do things like upend the electric grid, for instance. There are pieces of malware now that can infect, say, the security and the IT systems of a power plant. There’s been an example, at least one example, of that happening in the Ukraine and causing all sorts of havoc and blackouts.
Then the third aspect of cyber warfare that’s typically acknowledged is just the use of software for spying on people. That’s related to things that our own NSA does. It’s related to the exposure of information to other countries. It’s related to hacking and, of course, the whole Edward Snowden ongoing drama.
Those are sort of the three pieces of cyber warfare. It’s right now an ongoing concern, but conducted underneath the covers. It’s not very clear who the attackers are. It’s not very clear what their aims are all the time. Yet, at the same time, it’s a day to day thing that’s going on at a low level. For that reason, this author, one of the policy writers from Microsoft, was interested in instigating this conversation, which is, “Do we really need some international laws, some international framework, that would govern the policy around cyber warfare, much like the Geneva Conventions dictate the terms of war in the physical space?” Dirk, when you saw this article, what were the things that stood out to you?

Thinking about the issue, the thing that makes it so difficult is the plausible deniability, is that no matter what the rules are, can you prove? Can you illustrate that a particular country or a particular entity is guilty of something? It’s not very straightforward. Even though the technology exists to do that, it becomes a he said she said sort of territory, at least at the most sophisticated levels. With conventional warfare, if we fire a missile off at some other country, the satellites and the technology for tracking projectiles are going to see where that missile started. They’re going to see where that missile landed. It’s concrete. It’s something that is physical, understandable, and explainable.
The challenge with cyber is just this issue of plausible deniability, that it is far more difficult to get everybody on the same page and agreeing as to what happened where and how. It’s important, and having rules and framework in place would be great, but you need people to follow them. I think there’s rules and frameworks in place about sending drone bombs into sovereign nations, but it doesn’t stop us from doing it, the United States. The rules need to be enforced, and at least in other malignant combat scenarios, we, in our country, don’t follow the rules. I think it’s meddlesome in a lot of different ways.

Yeah. To your point, there are international laws that govern chemical warfare. I think those came into being after World War I, where there was an awful lot of suffering caused by chemical weapons and the world said, “Yeah, we’re not interested in repeating that.” At the same time, as you pointed out, there’s plausible deniability. We see that in the scenario over in Syria, for instance, where the trail of proof is hard to piece together when it comes to chemical weapons. You can imagine how much more difficult that would be for a cyber attack, but this does raise the issue around emerging technologies and how we manage and make policies around items that are not visible in the physical world.
Right now, we’re talking about digital systems, very complicated. There are other emerging technologies, for instance, our own genomes, that are increasingly going to become privy to other people, other actors. As technologies emerge that expose people to other types of dangers, there’s a question whether or not policy, and especially policy around warfare, can keep up with emerging technologies. I think the answer initially is, “Probably not”, but it’s going to have to be a fast follower.

I’m going to upgrade that to definitely not, Jon.

Yeah. No doubt. You can see the policies around genomics and the use of genomic tools, like CRISPR. Those discussions are ongoing, and clearly people are trying to keep pace with the technology, even if they’re not successful. I think we’re, in the 21st century, seeing these interlocking, very complicated systems, where smaller organizations and actors are capable of creating massive damage using these technological tools as leverage. With each emerging technology that becomes increasingly powerful and gives us all sorts of leverage around ourselves and our environment, we also have the possibility of those becoming attack surfaces. Just the potential for mischief and warfare seem to be increasing exponentially. I don’t know if that’s something that we’re just going to have to live with or if the idea of international policies that can govern not only nation states, but also these smaller actors, whether that’s possible or not. We need something like that. I just don’t know what the outcomes will be.

Yeah. It’s a great spotlight of how the old world, the world that preceded the digital age, is not compatible with the technologies that we have our grasp in the digital age. If you look at the makeup of the legislature … I did a piece a few years ago that deconstructed the legislative branch of the US government. The vast majority [inaudible 10:24] are businessmen and women, lawyers. The number of scientists was 1%, 2%. Number of engineers was 1%, 2%. The issues that are being dealt with around emerging tech are issues that require the knowledge and insight and particular brand of thoughtfulness of a scientist or of an engineer, among others certainly, but those people aren’t present.
The people who are present in the decision making process are people who don’t have knowledge and insight into these complicated things. They can get it up to a certain point of depth. I’m sure there are some that really invest themselves and do more so. I think there’s many others who are relying on staffs and their good old common sense from the old days. The very people who run the legislature are ill equipped to deal with these issues, which is to say nothing of the fact that structurally, the speed at which the legislature moves is agonizingly slow and it is compromised by the sort of pork barrel, the whole Washington swamp thing of, “Well, I’m only going to pass your legislation if you throw this crap in it that I want to have happen.” There’s a lot that’s horribly outdated about the very way that we make law and legislate issues that is going to really beguile us in the context of dealing with this rapidly changing smartware world.

Yeah. As you pointed out, that’s our system here in the United States, so multiply that by however many countries you like and, all of a sudden, you have a morass of impossible policy making. Further, you can see where the international community has been able to come together to make policies around a scenario like global warming with the Paris Agreement. That takes many, many years to put together an agreement like that, which can immediately be undermined by one country, say, our country, withdrawing from that.
The ability to govern on an international level and deal with problems around emerging technologies, I think we are challenged in a massive way right now. It makes me feel like there are important roles to play for folks who understand technology and can design systems that make it easier for people to interact with these technologies, whether that’s coming from the policy side or from the design side or even from the governmental side. I think there’s a huge gap in our capabilities to deal with these technologies in a public fashion, starting with our conversations in the public sphere are usually, of late have been pretty low brow. There isn’t a lot of discussion around emerging tech, aside from, I suppose, cyber warfare has been a hot topic of late, but we’re really missing the mark when it comes to dealing with these in the public sphere as well.

Yeah. I really want to emphasize … I think it’s at the level of our society. Our society was designed, from the legislature to things like schedule and the rhythm of school and the content of school and so many other things, were designed in what was essentially a preindustrial revolution world. In the subsequent, how long has it been now, like 250 years, it has begun morphing to be appropriate for an industrial revolution world. I don’t even think it’s gotten there yet. Now we’re moving into a world, the digital world, the smartware world, and it’s so far behind that as to be ridiculous. We need change that is not the slow evolutionary rumble that we’ve become accustomed to in human civilized history. We need something that is more severe because the degree of change in the context around our society and around our civilization is massively different, and we need to change to deal with it properly, but we aren’t. I don’t think we will any time soon. It’s going to lead to more problems, more shenanigans. It’s unfortunate.

I’m going to encourage our listeners to check out that article on the World Economic Forum website, “Why We Urgently need A Digital Geneva Convention”. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to That’s just one “L” in the Digital Life. Go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, Player FM, and Google Play. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare in emerging tech, which you can check out at That’s Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thank you so much for listening.

That’s it for episode 241 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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