Dec 10, 2012

What do 16th century Portugal, the early 20th century UK, and 21st century Iran have in common?


Two events are currently happening in Iran that have a parallel with the history of piracy. Piracy, no matter when it is occurring, shares certain similar features that exist across time. First, pirates enter into a conflictive relationship with the state. This is particularly true of states that claim to be the sole source of sovereignty, or legitimate power. In the case of dictatorships, this means that all territory, whether land, cyberspace, or airwaves, is under exclusive sovereign control. 

For sovereigns who were expanding their territories in the first age of maritime exploration, anyone who crossed their territory, subject to a trade monopoly, would be considered a pirate. However, the state can employ pirates in order to challenge the legitimacy of other sovereigns. As corsairs, pirates are sent on missions on behalf of the state. Corsairs on the sea may be sent to maintain and protect the territory of a sovereign -- this how the Portuguese and Spanish maintained their monopoly on the trade routes to the Indies throughout the 16th century. In cyberspace, corsairs are enlisted by governments to carry out attacks and hacks on other government and private organizations. Famously, after an American drone collided with a Chinese fighter plane, American computer networks were hit hard by a wave of cyberattacks, which were attributed to the a union of Chinese cyberpirates, known as the Honker Union of China. 

Secondly, pirates operate in an organized manner on uncharted territory, from a set of support bases located outside this territory which the state typically claims to have sovereign control. A good illustration of this is Pirate Radio, especially as constituted in the 1960s against the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In its original incarnation, the BBC had a monopoly on radio broadcasting across the UK. Almost immediately off shore alternatives to the BBC popped up to offer programming that pushed at the broadcast limitations of the BBC. For instance, pirate station Radio Mercur was located on a ship in international waters, that was registered in Panama, funded by Swiss money and rented to a company in Liechenstein. 

As recently reported by a number of news organizations, the recent U.S. presidential debates focused largely on the protection of American territory and citizenry abroad. Often missing from this debate though, was a conversation about protecting the cyber interests of America. Iran has reportedly made digital technology a priority in order to wage cyberwarfare. Allegedly, Iranian cybercorsairs were recently involved in a round of attacks that infected servers and erased files at the Saudi oil company Aramaco. In addition, Iran reportedly has employed a new task force of cyber police to both initiate attacks and to protect their own piece of cyberspace through locking out those parts of the internet that threaten the sovereignty of Iran. 

Iran also intends to enclose their internet under the guise of Iranian security, and are currently moving government, banks, universities and businesses to a private and enclosed Iranian intranet. Cyberspace is to the 21st century what the high seas were to the 17th -- a battlefield for sovereign expansion that will shape the future of capitalism. But if you think governments should not be the ones shaping the rules of cyberspace, then who should be? 

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