Rodrigo Bijou:
Governments don't understand cyber warfare. We need hackers

In 2008, Burhan Hassan, age 17, boarded a flight from Minneapolis to the Horn of Africa. And while Burhan was the youngest recruit, he was not alone. Al-Shabaab managed to recruit over two dozen young men in their late teens and early 20s with a heavy presence on social media platforms like Facebook. With the Internet and other technologies, they've changed our everyday lives, but they've also changed recruitment, radicalization and the front lines of conflict today.

What about the links connecting Twitter, Google and protesters fighting for democracy? These numbers represent Google's public DNS servers, effectively the only digital border crossing protesters had and could use to communicate with each other, to reach the outside world and to spread viral awareness of what was happening in their own country.

Today, conflict is essentially borderless. If there are bounds to conflict today, they're bound by digital, not physical geography. And under all this is a vacuum of power where non-state actors, individuals and private organizations have the advantage over slow, outdated military and intelligence agencies. And this is because, in the digital age of conflict, there exists a feedback loop where new technologies, platforms like the ones I mentioned, and more disruptive ones, can be adapted, learned, and deployed by individuals and organizations faster than governments can react.

To understand the pace of our own government thinking on this, I like to turn to something aptly named the Worldwide Threat Assessment, where every year the Director of National Intelligence in the US looks at the global threat landscape, and he says, "These are the threats, these are the details, and this is how we rank them." In 2007, there was absolutely no mention of cyber security. It took until 2011, when it came at the end, where other things, like West African drug trafficking, took precedence. In 2012, it crept up, still behind things like terrorism and proliferation. In 2013, it became the top threat, in 2014 and for the foreseeable future.

What things like that show us is that there is a fundamental inability today on the part of governments to adapt and learn in digital conflict, where conflict can be immaterial, borderless, often wholly untraceable. And conflict isn't just online to offline, as we see with terrorist radicalization, but it goes the other way as well.

We all know the horrible events that unfolded in Paris this year with the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks. What an individual hacker or a small group of anonymous individuals did was enter those social media conversations that so many of us took part in. #JeSuisCharlie. On Facebook, on Twitter, on Google, all sorts of places where millions of people, myself included, were talking about the events and saw images like this, the emotional, poignant image of a baby with "Je suis Charlie" on its wrist. And this turned into a weapon. What the hackers did was weaponize this image, where unsuspecting victims, like all of us in those conversations, saw this image, downloaded it but it was embedded with malware. And so when you downloaded this image, it hacked your system. It took six days to deploy a global malware campaign. The divide between physical and digital domains today ceases to exist, where we have offline attacks like those in Paris appropriated for online hacks.

And it goes the other way as well, with recruitment. We see online radicalization of teens, who can then be deployed globally for offline terrorist attacks.

With all of this, we see that there's a new 21st century battle brewing, and governments don't necessarily take a part.

So in another case, Anonymous vs. Los Zetas. In early September 2011 in Mexico, Los Zetas, one of the most powerful drug cartels, hung two bloggers with a sign that said, "This is what will happen to all Internet busybodies." A week later, they beheaded a young girl. They severed her head, put it on top of her computer with a similar note. And taking the digital counteroffensive because governments couldn't even understand what was going on or act, Anonymous, a group we might not associate as the most positive force in the world, took action, not in cyber attacks, but threatening information to be free. On social media, they said, "We will release information that ties prosecutors and governors to corrupt drug deals with the cartel." And escalating that conflict, Los Zetas said, "We will kill 10 people for every bit of information you release." And so it ended there because it would become too gruesome to continue. But what was powerful about this was that anonymous individuals, not federal policia, not military, not politicians, could strike fear deep into the heart of one of the most powerful, violent organizations in the world. And so we live in an era that lacks the clarity of the past in conflict, in who we're fighting, in the motivations behind attacks, in the tools and techniques used, and how quickly they evolve. And the question still remains: what can individuals, organizations and governments do?

For answers to these questions, it starts with individuals, and I think peer-to-peer security is the answer. Those people in relationships that bought over teens online, we can do that with peer-to-peer security. Individuals have more power than ever before to affect national and international security. And we can create those positive peer-to-peer relationships on and offline, we can support and educate the next generation of hackers, like myself, instead of saying, "You can either be a criminal or join the NSA." That matters today. And it's not just individuals -- it's organizations, corporations even. They have an advantage to act across more borders, more effectively and more rapidly than governments can, and there's a set of real incentives there. It's profitable and valuable to be seen as trustworthy in the digital age, and will only be more so in future generations to come.

But we still can't ignore government, because that's who we turn to for collective action to keep us safe and secure. But we see where that's gotten us so far, where there's an inability to adapt and learn in digital conflict, where at the highest levels of leadership, the Director of the CIA, Secretary of Defense, they say, "Cyber Pearl Harbor will happen." "Cyber 9/11 is imminent." But this only makes us more fearful, not more secure. By banning encryption in favor of mass surveillance and mass hacking, sure, GCHQ and the NSA can spy on you. But that doesn't mean that they're the only ones that can. Capabilities are cheap, even free. Technical ability is rising around the world, and individuals and small groups have the advantage. So today it might just be the NSA and GCHQ, but who's to say that the Chinese can't find that backdoor? Or in another generation, some kid in his basement in Estonia?

And so I would say that it's not what governments can do, it's that they can't. Governments today need to give up power and control in order to help make us more secure. Giving up mass surveillance and hacking and instead fixing those backdoors means that, yeah, they can't spy on us, but neither can the Chinese or that hacker in Estonia a generation from now. And government support for technologies like Tor and Bitcoin mean giving up control, but it means that developers, translators, anybody with an Internet connection, in countries like Cuba, Iran and China, can sell their skills, their products, in the global marketplace, but more importantly sell their ideas, show us what's happening in their own countries.

And so it should be not fearful, it should be inspiring to the same governments that fought for civil rights, free speech and democracy in the great wars of the last century, that today, for the first time in human history, we have a technical opportunity to make billions of people safer around the world that we've never had before in human history. It should be inspiring.