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Is the Internet a Matter of National Security?

September 22, 1997|Gary Chapman | Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at

Slowly but surely, step by incremental step, the Internet is being pulled into the forbidding black hole of "national security." Several recent developments have raised warning flags that the global communications network is now regarded as the turf of the people and institutions left over from the Cold War.

On Sept. 5, the President's Commission on Critical Infrastructure (http:// released a report calling for a huge increase in funding for protection of the "critical systems" of the nation, including electric power distribution, telecommunications, banking and finance, water, transportation, oil and gas storage and transportation, emergency services and government services.

The commission recommended doubling the current federal R&D budget of $250 million for protecting these systems, with increases of $100 million each year after 1999 to $1 billion per year by 2004.

The commission's chairman, retired Air Force Gen. Robert T. Marsh, told the Associated Press, "These are the life-support systems of the nation. They're vital, not only for day-to-day discourse, they're vital to national security. They're vital to our economic competitiveness worldwide, they're vital to our very way of life."

Ten days ago, the House Select Committee on Intelligence in the U.S. Congress voted to require that all technology for encrypting data provide a "key" that could be obtained by law enforcement or national security officials. The vote reversed a trend toward relaxing such controls--one of the chief political goals of the high-tech industry. Committee members cited the warnings they received in "classified briefings" as the main reason for their vote.

Later this month there will be a high-level conference in Chicago titled "The Information Revolution: Impact on the Foundations of National Power," hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (http://www.csis. org) and featuring many of the graybeards of the national security state, such as arms control negotiator Paul Nitze, former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn, Bob Galvin of Motorola and ubiquitous conservative pundit William Bennett.

This signifies the discovery of the Internet by the highest mandarins of the American power establishment, and the title of the conference frames the subject in an ominous fashion.

This summer I was visited by, and gave a briefing to, a delegation of Washington experts from the intelligence community--about a dozen gentlemen from the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Treasury Department and the Pentagon. It was at this meeting that I first heard the explicit statement that the Internet is now regarded as a critical national asset that these agencies believe needs their protection and attention.

The Internet, of course, has always been linked to the Defense Department--it began, in the late 1960s, as a defense research project, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was its overseer until 1983.

But the Pentagon never considered the Internet (or Arpanet, as it was known until 1983) to be a "critical" communications network. There is a persistent myth that the Internet was developed in a particular way to sustain damage in a nuclear attack, but this was never true, as is pointed out in the definitive history of the Net, "When Wizards Stay Up Late," by Katie Hafner and Matt Lyon. The Internet was always a research project and chiefly a means to pass information between incompatible computer systems.


But now the Internet is increasingly embedded in the nation's economic life. More and more commerce is conducted on the Internet. Basic utilities, like power and water, are beginning to use Internet-related computer networks for monitoring services. The federal government is increasingly dependent on computer-mediated communication over networks.

Many people in positions of power see the Internet as a precursor to a vast global infrastructure of commerce and communication that the U.S. is likely to dominate. Whatever global empire the U.S. will have in the 21st century is likely to depend on this technology.

This global character of the Internet raises an interesting paradox for the national security community. The Internet promises easy global commerce for companies, no matter where they're physically located. These companies have an intense interest in computer security, but they tend to be wary, if not hostile, to national security imperatives.

When the Reagan administration, in the mid-1980s, attempted to implement a new security classification for digital information called "sensitive not secret," the private sector rebelled, and the proposal was killed. In the same period, manufacturers of supercomputers and high-end workstations chafed at Pentagon export controls.


Now the battle is being waged over encryption, and last week's defeat for business may raise the stakes. The House committee vote "is a disaster," said Rebecca Gould, vice president for public policy at the Business Software Alliance (

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