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Wilson Dizard

Cyber war laws are our only hope for saving civilian minds

'Russian meddling was an offence for which laws and courts don't yet exist' [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 July, 2018

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Comment: Russian election meddling is evidence that the civilian mind is no longer sovereign, writes Wilson Dizard.
The world needs rules to protect civilians from cyberwarfare, and the last week of human history proves it.

If we don't come up with some kind of international covenant, we'll end up with a world we won't want to live in.

It's difficult to extract some thread of meaning from US President Donald Trump's trip to Europe, and sit down chat with Russia's leader Vladimir Putin.

Even recounting every twist and turn is difficult, since Trump's own tweets and actions might render it obsolete by the time of publication.

In essence, however, over the last week or so, Trump frightened European allies at a NATO meeting, then met with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki where he declined to condemn the Kremlin interference in the 2016 election, as American intelligence agencies insist happened.  

The entire episode has thrown the United States into an even deeper state of political psychosis, with accusations of "treason" flying at a more ferocious pace than usual.

Unfortunately, calling each other traitors won't restore civil society, and such allegations play into original Russian gambit of sowing discord to overwhelm democracy's most essential engine: the central nervous system.

Russian meddling in 2016 didn't "hack our election," as pundits often state.

Russian meddling in 2016 didn't 'hack our election', as pundits often state. What the Russians did do, was hack us

What the Russians did do, was hack us; our brains, the organs we use to decide who gets our vote, the meaty skull-bound hard drives with which we navigate our social universe. Our brains are vulnerable to misinformation and lies just as our immune systems are vulnerable to smallpox.

What Russia did in 2016 was an offence for which laws and courts do not yet exist. It was a cyber war crime, a deliberate infection of civilian grey matter with a disease for which there is no vaccine or cure. Worse than that, the Russians don't know how to understand or control it.

Nevertheless, pundits and journalists expect the United States to have an answer to Russian election meddling.

Read more: America's cyber civil war rages as migrant families suffer

Some, including CNN's Anderson Cooper, had called for action in live broadcasts from Helsinki. Trump must tell Putin to knock off the election meddling, or we'll do something. What? Who knows.

America's cyber arsenal is not available for public inspection, and it mutates as fast as technology changes. It's this kind of technology that Russia released on the US, and, in case you suspected as much, it's driving us insane.

Exactly how, you might ask? Well, right now, for example, I am resisting the urge to recount the play by play of what has taken place over the last week in the investigation into Russian meddling, Trump's vacillation about its very existence and the consequences of Robert Mueller indictment on Russia.

My primate brain itches to recount the tale of crosses and double crosses, White House lies that fit together into a sturdy redoubt of paranoia that Trump has lived in for years.

Allegations of your leaders betraying your own community, working in legion with outside forces, must light up a particularly ancient part of the brain. It's the part that keeps millions of Americans glued to the drama in DC, their eyes glazed over during advertisements, to get to the next revelation.

And while news organisations are no longer airing uninterrupted coverage of Trump's rally orations, they're happy to serve audiences speedballs of white hot outrage and darkening intrigue.

Let's take the incensed statement of one American victim of the Russian effort: "Donald Trump's press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of 'high crimes & misdemeanors.' It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump's comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???"

Now that isn't just any irate, online grandparent letting off steam on Twitter. That's John O. Brennan, former head of the CIA, a vocal Trump critic.

Smartphones, social media and the internet have made the human brain hackable from afar

Some of the replies to his tweet accuse him of being the real traitor, and marshal delusion as evidence. Meanwhile, the Mueller investigation by its very nature calls into question the validity of Trump's 2016 win, but also inspires doubt in the legitimacy of all future elections.

As early as 2014, Russia's fascist think tank, the Izborsk Club, was imagining the creation of what it called a "'destructive paranoid reflection'" in American politics, writes Timothy Snyder in 'The Road to Unfreedom, a new account of Moscow's brain hacking endeavors in Europe, Ukraine and the US'.

If what the Russians wanted was to make Americans doubt the validity of democracy, then a domestic criminal investigation that imprisons Americans and indicts Russians will only feed partisan psychosis. Already, American opinions on Russia split down party lines, polls show, and widening. Republicans, Trump's party, see Russia favorably, while Democrats do not.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Trump campaign connections with Russia will not make America whole again, nor will it undo the damage done, the "paranoid reflection," that is a persistent aspect of American politics now.

The president is a Russian intelligence asset, you say? That kind of talk would sound like a sign of mental illness just two years ago. Today, presumably sane people recount this allegation on cable television regularly.

Smartphones, social media and the internet have made the human brain hackable from afar, and put democracy at risk when civilians find themselves the targets of cyber offensives intended to stoke confusion and delusion.

US federal law enforcement and the top echelons of politics are gravely mistaken if they think they can solve the problem with the legal tools they have at hand. Put Trump in prison? That's not going to end our long national nervous breakdown.

And the longterm consequences of Russia's human hacking won't be good for Moscow, either.

Just as the Stuxnet worm released by the US and Israel on Iran's nuclear programme still roams around the internet, the consequences of messing with American politics and mobilising the people against the government is not something anyone can predict.

What if we do end up having a civil war? That's a civil war involving thousands of nuclear weapons. In the same way a country can't predict how a biological weapon will mutate once deployed, and maybe infect your own forces or population, the mutation of a a "paranoid reflection" in the wild is dangerous for the country that uses it.

In his new book, 'The Perfect Weapon', David Sanger, The New York Times' national security correspondent, touches on the necessity of "arms control" in cyberspace, but laments the secrecy intelligence agencies hold their digital arsenal in, making it impossible to have a meaningful discussion of how to do so.

It was a cyber war crime, a deliberate infection of civilian grey matter

"America swore off chemical and biological weapons when we determined that the cost to civilians of legitimising them was greater than any military advantage they offered. We limited the kinds of nuclear weapons we would build and banned some. We can do the same in cyberspace, but only if we are willing to openly discuss our capabilities and to help monitor cyberspace for violators," Sanger writes.

Sanger's suggestion sounds like science fiction, but it's rooted in history. We can live in a world where nations renegotiate the terms of their sovereignty, but we can't live in a world where the civilian mind is no longer sovereign, our neurons like the "no-man's land" of the First World War.

Although fitting, the Hague for trials of cyber war crimes is not in the cards right now. But our moment in history demands at least a recognition that some kinds of cyber attacks should be out of bounds.

If we don't, as a species, wrestle with rules like these, we're condemning ourselves and our children to a living nightmare our waking minds can't even begin to imagine.

Wilson Dizard is a reporter and photojournalist covering politics, media and culture. He enjoys bicycling. 

Follow him on Twitter: @willdizard

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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