Friday, June 19, 2009

The Reality of Generation Y's Virtual World.

We may find the Tweeters take political power and what are we going to do then? Talk about a paradigm shift.

- Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy Planning for the State Department, June 18th, 2009
There is irony that Dr. Slaughter was expressing this opinion on Wednesday morning, because this week Twitter has become not only a tool for channeling population centric political power against a government, but perhaps even a tool for leveraging population centric military power. As I observe the events unfolding online surrounding the Iranian elections, I see a sustained global, generational, multinational cyber skirmish against the current government of Iran with the intent of expressing political support for the Iranian people.

If that sounds a bit odd to you, all I can say is welcome to the 21st century, because you have just stepped into the reality of Generation Y's virtual world.

Virtual Terrain

One side effect of the US invasion of Iraq is the enormous investments that have come to the Middle East region, particularly in the form of telecommunications. It isn't just cell phones and cyber cafe's, the submarine cables laid to support the requirements of a western military presence include the requirements for the associated non-military activities and infrastructure investments necessary to support operations in places Western military's deploy. In this decade the Middle East has experienced an explosion in technology access, and one result from the higher oil prices that has come from the instability in the region is a modernization of most major global industries based there. In Iran, virtually all global business, particularly with China, takes place on information networks just as they do in the West.

Iran has 6 major telecommunications companies, but all internet traffic is filtered through the state owned Data communication Company of Iran (or DCI), which is essentially the firewall for network traffic in and out of Iran. Arbor Networks, an IT security research firm, has a network monitoring tool called ATLAS 2.0 which monitors about 80% of the global internet traffic. The last entry on Arbor researcher Craig Labovitz's blog lays out the cyber battlefield.
In normal times, DCI carries roughly 5 Gbps of traffic (with a reported capacity of 12 Gbps) through 6 upstream regional and global Internet providers. For the region, this represents an average level of Internet infrastructure (for purposes of perspective, a mid size ISP in Michigan carries roughly the same level of traffic).

One the day after the elections on June 13th at 1:30pm GMT (9:30am EDT and 6:00pm Tehran / IRDT), Iran dropped off the Internet. All six regional and global providers connecting Iran to the rest of the world saw a near complete loss of traffic.

Most Internet traffic to Iran goes through Reliance (formerly Flag) Telecom, the major Asia Pacific region underseas cable operator. Singtel, a major pan-Asian provider and Türk Telekom also provide significant transit. Initially, DCI severed most of the major transit connections into Iran. Within a few hours, a trickle of traffic returned across TeliaSonera, Reliance and SignTel — all well under 1 Gbps. As of 6:30am GMT June 16, traffic levels returned to roughly 70% of normal with Reliance traffic climbing by more than a Gigabit.
Many people are speculating why Iran is running at around 70% of normal. Most security researchers agree it is because Iran is conducting packet inspection, but the methods Iran is using to conduct packet inspection is purely speculative. The main point is, 5 Gbps is not much, and on the cyber battlefield Iran is not only limited due to bandwidth, but bandwidth control is limited due to probable ownership of Chinese IT hardware usually 2-3 generations behind western equivalents (often clones of western hardware 2-3 generations older than modern versions). Because Iran cannot conduct global business with partners without the internet, shutting down the internet brings economic problems that would only compound the political problems taking place in the Iranian streets.

For years strategic thinkers have suggested that the technological connectivity requirements for global commerce is a dynamic that will radically influence the calculations of governments that lack transparency. We are seeing that dynamic at work in how the Iranian government is currently managing this crisis of information control in and out of Iran.

Virtual Insurgency

I got into a theoretical debate with Professor Samuel Liles, Cyber Security Researcher and Professor at Purdue University. The debate is whether what we are seeing is open cyber warfare or hacktivism (terrorism in cyberspace). The answer to the question seems to hinge on scope, and how scope is defined. Joining the debate, cyber security and intelligence expert Jeffery Carr suggested a broader definition of cyberwar to be an extension of political will with a strategic objective. Professor Liles suggested that in order for what we are seeing in support of a segment of Iranian people to rise to the level of cyber warfare, there must be a full spectrum engagement and not just a single tactic or tool used. My argument would be that tactics are derived by strategy, and any cyber strategy in support of the Iranian people would not attack the infrastructure of the Iranian people, rather concentrate on preventing control of information networks by the regime (which is what is happening).

I have not settled that debate in my mind, and it probably isn't relevant.

What I do think we are seeing may be the first virtual insurgency supporting a political ideal (democracy) for people who are attempting to take power in another country, and clearly feel they were cheated from that power by the existing government. I also observe a broader scope of tactics being deployed, although I have not necessarily been paying attention to the influence of these attacks, or to what scale they have been successful or not.

The strategic weapon is clearly information, and the propagation of information is primarily used by tactical weapons including social software, proxy servers, tor, bit torrent, education, and I would suggest the most effective effort I have seen yet was a simple text website with mobile app downloads ready for install on popular cell phones used in Iran.

Can you imagine an act of cyber terrorism from the United States against another government where Esquire magazine publishes an article by a politically connected new media hacktivist who brags how he helped leverage Twitter to wage cyber jihad against the Iranian leaderships primary news website? Like I said, this is the reality of Generation Y's virtual world.
The link that I repackaged and distributed on Twitter this week was to a tool called It does exactly what you'd expect it to do: refresh whatever Web site you want at whatever frequency you set. Sure, the site's intentions center more on winning eBay auctions than, say, affecting the outcome of a democratic election, but democracy's a loose term in Iran. All people had to do, then, was click my link and leave it open, and the lie-spewing servers of The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) would be slammed 3,600 times an hour.

So anyway, my tweet didn't take long to catch on. (I work in political new media, so the people I interact with online really know how to make some noise.) And it didn't take very long for the IRIB site to start slowing down. So I tweeted about it, and e-mailed a few friends in the new-media world, who retweeted it out of courtesy and (somewhat mischievous) human decency. By sundown, our army of not-quite-hackers had swelled to forty or so, and just like that, the official news site of Iran was gone for a few hours.
I highlight that tactic for the purposes of noting the potential of social software to organize populations for purposes of political cyber sabotage. I want to clearly state the strategic objective of the virtual insurgency supporting the Iranian people is not to directly engage in the sabotage of Iranian government internet hard points.

The strategic objective of the virtual insurgency in support of the Iranian people is to increase transparency. Information is the weapon, not being leveraged by our government, rather being used by multinational peoples primarily represented by Generation Y. Information is being channeled to strengthen the network to insure the free flow of information into Iran with the intent of supporting greater output of information from Iran. All tactical aspects of the virtual insurgency that support those strategic ends empower the Iranian populations credibility towards legitimate democracy. It should be noted, the virtual insurgency is also supporting the objectives of those in opposition to the existing government who have a likely intent to reproduce a 1979 revolution.

Generational Trends

Diversity means something different to someone of the Baby Boomer generation than it does to someone in Generation Y, but the generations are turning out to be very similar. The political activism in the 60s towards causes of domestic freedom are not dissimilar to the modern era political hacktivism towards international freedoms. There were many grassroots organizational groups developed and cultivated in the 60s, and we call those organizational groups netroots today.

While the cyberspace activities in support of the Iranian people today are not officially organized by any single political party, Generation Y tends to generally be socially liberal, tends to engage in causes that organize in networks, and tend to get engaged in politics even as the majority of Generation Y can barely articulate a political policy or position (including their own). I'm politically tone deaf when it comes to issues, but as an observer of political movements I would suggest one reason Generation Y gravitates left is because the progressive base actively engages in activities that leverage networks for political ends.

When I got off work today I was forced to listen to a radio talk show host debate Pat Buchanan. The talk show host (Sean Hannity) was attacking the Obama administration for, in his words, "not standing up for Freedom by denouncing the regime in Iran like Reagan did the Soviet Union." If the official position of the Republican Party is to be reliant on the government for a token political statement, the Republican Party is doomed in 2010 because they are too old to get it, and too out of touch to see it.

The Obama administration can only screw this up by engaging in the Iranian dialogue, but with that said the administration would be very wise to find leadership opportunities within the spacial grid of the ungoverned, people initiated virtual insurgency many in the United States are supporting. Avoiding public engagement on the issue while providing indirect guidance for promoting a productive strategic objective like transparency and attempting to prevent tactical efforts that can cause damage to the movement taking place in Iran would seem to be a wise political policy. Getting both political parties on board for a simple, but unified strategic objective would also seem to be important. Allowing this Generation Y movement to act in unison, absent political divisions, promotes a higher chance of success and sends a strong population centric message to the Iranian people.

Why is that important? Because polls continuously show that Iranians have a higher opinion of western peoples than they do of western governments. This policy would literally put our best face out front.

There will be an enormous number of lessons in cyber warfare to learn from the activities we see unfolding. A 4GW model is clearly visible. We have non-state actors primarily made up of a younger generation of people living in the stronger economic nations of the world engaging in forms of cyber terrorism with the intent of producing political objectives. That non-state actor may even be leveraging military level cyber warfare capabilities against a political party currently holding state level power in a country half way around the world.

Somehow I doubt that scenario was previosly being examined in the Department of Defense's QDR cyber warfare discussion. Welcome to the reality of Generation Y's virtual world.

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