THE BLOG
07/14/2014 01:08 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2014

Less Than Zero: Hyping the Cyber War

This week's issue of Time magazine features an arresting cover: "World War Zero" screams the headline in huge red block letters. An ominous silhouette of a man in a hoody looking into a background of electronic ones and zeroes darkens the center of the frame. "The global battle to steal your secrets is turning hackers into arms dealers," the sub-heading warns.

Before we all strap on our body armor to go fight World War Zero and hacker arms dealers, though, we should consider the deft turn of phrase used by Time. The key word in the war declaration turns out to be 'your,' as in 'your secrets.' The magazine cover suggests that the secrets in question are personal data from all of us, which hacker arms dealers are conniving to steal and then sell to evil aliens. But if those are the secrets we're talking about, then here in the Homeland, we're not sure any longer who they actually belong to. If Facebook is to be believed, then Facebook owns our personal information. We 'shared' it with the corporation and we therefore forfeited our rights to it. Similarly, if you've got a Verizon iPhone, you had 30 days after you bought it to opt out of a data sharing program that gives location, age and gender data to advertisers, along with information about the sports teams you like, the restaurants you frequent, and whatever else you happen to record on your phone. If you missed that 30-day window, then your data belong to Verizon. And if that isn't enough, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, taking its cue from a 35-year-old Supreme Court ruling, determined that Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable search and seizure don't apply to your phone call logs (metadata) because when you subscribe to a phone service, you surrender your data to the telecom. So Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and Cricket own your secrets. Following this line of argument, you can't claim that the government has no right to your information because you already gave it away to a private corporation. In other words, it's no longer yours.

So it seems, our secrets have already been taken. First by Facebook and Verizon, and then by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FISA court. Nonetheless, we're apparently plunging into World War Zero to protect our pre-seized secrets from someone else, with whom, according to Time, we're already locked in battle:

This conflict only occasionally becomes visible to the naked eye - in May, for example, when the U.S. indicted five members of the Chinese army for stealing data from American companies, including Westinghouse and Alcoa.

Oh wait. This has taken a surprising turn: the Time story isn't really about our secrets. It's about corporate secrets and intellectual property, which makes a little more sense. The author of the piece, Lev Grossman, then quotes the duplicitous and thoroughly self-serving Keith Alexander, former head of the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command, as proof that we have to go defend these secrets. According to Grossman, Alexander called "China's ongoing electronic theft of American intellectual property, 'the greatest transfer of wealth in history.'" Note the qualifier on intellectual property: 'American.' Note also, the hysteria, unsubstantiated by any fact at all.

Alexander, of course, has his own reasons for hyping illicit cyber transfers. He now runs his own cyber-security firm, which peddles to private industry the techniques he learned while collecting a paycheck from the public. According to Bloomberg, he charges clients hundreds of thousands of dollars a month for access to his expertise.

So here's the deal. If a corporation like Westinghouse or Alcoa has to pay Keith Alexander a half-million a month for cyber-security, then the boards of directors have incentives to pass the bill on to us -- the taxpayers -- by talking about their secrets as if they were ours and by representing their private battles as a war between countries rather than a greed fight between corporations. Because if the battle concerns us, then we could be obliged to pay for it.

In this rosy era of globalization, however, it doesn't matter to me whether corporate secrets about, say, aluminum smelting belong to Alcoa or to a Chinese company. Frankly, for all I know, Alcoa is a Chinese company.

As a matter of fact, Alcoa, although born in the USA, now operates in 30 countries, and in 2012, consummated a joint venture with China Power Investment Corporation to manufacture high-end fabricated aluminum at Alcoa CPI (China) Aluminum Investment Co. Ltd., based in Shanghai. For good measure, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke blessed the union.

So are we, as American taxpayers, to foot the bill for a World War Zero cyber conflict to protect the secrets of Alcoa from the government of China, when Alcoa is a partially Chinese venture? Why would we want to do that for Alcoa -- or for other nominally U.S. corporations?

It's a hefty bill, too. Documents disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden show that our intelligence budget alone is over $52 billion a year, which is probably an underestimation. Of course, we don't know that actual number. For cyber war -- the budget is black. As taxpayers, we're obliged to pay for it, but we have no right to know what it costs or what it does.

Nor do we really know who we're protecting, if anyone. To hear Grossman tell it, we're apparently protecting U.S. corporations, such as Alcoa. But, who really, in our globalized age, is a U.S. corporation?

Well, that's a tough one. We learned Sunday from Allan Sloan in the Washington Post that corporations are stampeding out of the U.S. in order to escape paying taxes here. Sloan's poster child corporation for tax avoidance is Medtronic, a medical device corporation based in Minnesota, soon undertaking a faux move for tax purposes to Ireland. Medtronic is undoubtedly the owner of fairly valuable intellectual property, which, it seems, we Americans should pay to protect. Ironically, Medtronic bills itself as the corporation that "Never Gives Up. Only Gives Back." As soon as the move to Ireland happens, however, Medtronic will no longer be giving back to us -- or to America.

Pfizer is another example of a nominally U.S. corporation - and the victim of cyber-attacks. Pfizer, of course, is also a flight risk from the U.S. tax code. The huge pharmaceutical corporation tried to flee to the U.K. where corporate taxes are lower, but the deal fell through this past spring. At the same time, Pfizer is defending its intellectual property in Chinese courts through a lawsuit to defend its patent on Viagra from the manufacture of knock-off treatments for erectile dysfunction.

In the old days, war was a public effort and a joint campaign. Americans gave their family members and tax dollars to the cause in order to preserve their way of life. We went to war to defend our values: freedom, democracy and justice.

The U.S. entered World War II because Pearl Harbor was attacked; we embarked on the war in Afghanistan after New York City and the Pentagon were attacked. Our country, our government, our soldiers and our citizens were bombed.

But cyber war seems to be different. Why are we the public paying to defend the likes of Bank of America? Or Target? Are Americans willing to go to war for them? How about for Verizon or Google? Or Pfizer and Medtronic?

World War Zero is a grossly exaggerated and misconceived emergency. It's an overblown alarm designed to keep the country on a war footing after our current war in Afghanistan ends this year. Corporate America and the intelligence community promote a panicked militaristic national mood because it justifies both government secrecy and huge taxpayer outlays for defense. After all, if Keith Alexander charges $500,000 a month to protect corporate secrets, Alcoa and Westinghouse would prefer that the U.S. taxpayer get the bill rather than their own private treasuries.

If the World War Zero storyline prevails and the corporate tax avoidance measures persist, that's exactly what's going to happen.

Bea Edwards is Executive & International Director of the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection organization. She is also the author of The Rise of the American Corporate Security State.

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