What is it about President Medvedev’s attempts to set up a “technology city” at Skolkovo that drives some western journalists over the edge? It seems to be more than just the typical desire – again, on the part of some sources – to see Russia fail at everything it tries; these sources seem to be trying for self-fulfilling prophesy. Let’s take a look at some of the overheated rhetoric, and see if we can figure out what’s behind it.
RFE/RL Russia’s alternately mocking and scaremongering article looks like a good place to start. Entitled, “Russia’s Silicon Valley Dreams May Threaten Cybersecurity”, the article takes a break from making fun of Medvedev’s height to advise us that Silicon Valley companies considering investment in Skolkovo “…could be indirectly helping a state many believe is leading the development of the newest global security threat: cyberwarfare”. Leaning heavily on the expertise of Seattle-based cybersecurity expert Jeffrey Carr, the author goes on to remind us that the FSB has a big interest in electronic information, and to speculate that Skolkovo is being constructed as Snoop Central. Why? Because, in the words of his cybersecurity expert, “If you’re wiring a facility….the best time to do it is while it’s being built”.
I’m going to guess that Mr. Carr was taken out of context here, because otherwise the concept is silly on so many levels that I don’t quite know where to start. Okay, okay, I know – let’s start with the perennially stupid “Silicon Valley” comparison, because the resemblance between Skolkovo and Silicon Valley is limited to their beginning with the same letter , and hopefully the mindless echo chamber that largely makes up modern journalism will stop repeating it.
First, Silicon Valley isn’t even a real place. The phrase was coined in 1971 in Electronic News, by journalist Don Hoefler. The core of what is now Silicon Valley is actually Palo Alto. Silicon Valley was started by accident, as an initiative by Stanford University’s professor of electrical engineering to lease university land to high-tech companies as a money-maker for the university. It was going to be called “Stanford Industrial Park”. The United States government was not involved in any capacity. Hewlett-Packard originated there, as a garage workshop start-up, and other companies followed.
Skolkovo, by way of contrast, is entirely a government project, with a vision of what it will be and what it is expected to achieve before building ever commenced. Silicon Valley grew up around the development of the first microprocessor, and consisted entirely of computer industries in its infancy. Skolkovo is expected to be a great deal more diversified from the start, incorporating nanotechnology, communications, software development, biomedical research, energy and information technology. If the shoe were on the other foot, and a two-person garage workshop project outside Moscow were compared with an American or European plan to create an advanced research centre from scratch, Americans and Europeans would laugh.
But let’s go back for a moment, to that blather about “wiring the facilities” so the FSB can snoop on “every byte of Internet traffic”. Is Mr. Carr suggesting the United States government’s intelligence services do not monitor every byte of Internet traffic? I beg to differ. And what’s all this stuff about wires? Remember Operation Roadside? In 2006, MI6 ran an operation in Russia, using Russian “assets” (they’re called “assets” when they’re working for you – when they’re working for somebody else, they’re called “traitors”) which featured a dead drop that was disguised as a rock. It was completely wireless, and intercepted and forwarded encrypted electronic messages without the users having to touch anything, or even stop as they passed by. When the FSB broke this operation, the “rock” was discovered to be powered by a Blackberry. That was four years ago. Is the implication here seriously that the FSB is wiring the buildings of Skolkovo while they’re being built, for electronic interception? Why would that be necessary? Has surveillance technology advanced no further than that, do you think? Have you unscrewed the receiver on your cellphone lately to check for bugs? Try it, why don’t you? That’s right; you can’t – it’s built into the phone. Can cellphone communications be monitored without the user’s knowledge? Most assuredly. Gee…I wonder how they do it, without wires.
But what’s most annoying is the author’s stubborn insistence that Russia is “leading the development of cyberwarfare”. Really? Does Russia have a government agency known as “Cyber Command”? Show me. The U.S. does. The whole article is chock-full of “could be’s” and “maybe so’s”, but the author has decided to blame Russia anyway. For example, he writes “…cyberattacks are often blurred…because it’s often impossible to prove who’s behind them..” Later, Mr Carr chimes in to report the discovery – following a six-month investigation – that cyberattacks against Estonian and Georgian websites originated with the Russian government, who were “distributing lists of targets to hackers”. Again, show me. The article goes on to mention that Carr dismisses the absence of direct evidence. What? A target list from the Russian government to a hacker sounds like direct evidence to me. Why weren’t any such lists produced as evidence? Other than evidence, we’re told the “size, timing and complexity” of the attack “implicated the Kremlin”. You’re kidding me, right? Western journalists seldom take a break from hammering on what a shitty, antiquated, tunnel-vision, bloated, unimaginative government model Russia has…except when something nasty is done particularly well. Then, then it must have been the Kremlin, who otherwise can’t do anything right. Since cyberwar software programs “can operate from servers outside Russia, they also provide the Kremlin with the crucial benefit of plausible deniability”. Correct. And, uh..everybody else. But we’ll blame Russia, how about? In the final paragraph, the silliness just spins out of control, and we’re informed that “China may lead the world in cyberespionage that raids Western intellectual property, but Russia leads the way in ‘being willing to take hostile action”. If that sounds a lot like “Weapons of Mass Destruction related program activities”, it’s not a coincidence. Both are something you say when you have nothing but a conviction unsupported by evidence.
Reluctantly acknowledged as it is here, China is in fact the world leader in cyberespionage. Getting better at it is even part of the latest five-year plan. Don’t worry, though: the United States is “seen to have a comfortable lead in the virtual battlefield”. Better at cyberwarfare than the world leader, that is to say, which sort of makes you the world leader – I just wanted to make sure you got that. While ki-yiing about Russia vacuuming up information at a horrifying rate, there’s still nobody better at it than the USA. China, though, is serious about catching up: at least one of the hackers responsible for a recent attack on the Pentagon was recruited by the PLA as a student responding to a “hacker competition”. When run to earth in Chengdu province, the cyberwarriors proved to be “a bunch of nerds” with laptops. Look, Ma – no wires. Just in case that point didn’t come through loud and clear, it is not necessary to wire a building to conduct cyber-espionage or even an attack: in fact, it would be somewhat to the right of stupidity to do that, because it would leave physical evidence that is completely unnecessary. The researchers who uncovered “Ghostnet”, a Chinese espionage Trojan email infector, suggest it “demonstrates the relative ease with which a technically unsophisticated approach can quickly be harnessed to create a very effective spynet.”
Knowing this, you’d reasonably assume the West is taking a stiffish sort of stance with China over their shenanigans. You’d be wrong. According to AmCham, the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, China is “the brightest star on the American investment horizon” and 64.5% of the companies surveyed (which included Cargill and General Motors) had plans to increase their investments in China in 2010. Apple. Ford Motors. Nike. Heinz. The Gap. Starbucks and Coca Cola view China as their top growth market. $3.6 Billion in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2009, when America was reeling in the grip of economic collapse, all of it from American companies.
But China isn’t planning to build a “technology city” so it can spy on good Americans, and increase its technical advantage over them, is it? No, not exactly. China calls them “Science Parks”. Tsinghua Science Park, for example, built in the Zuhai national high-tech zone, specializes in high-tech development, R&D and advanced business education management. “By becoming an attractive location for highly skilled domestic and foreign professionals and investing in R&D facilities, Tsinghua Science Park will grow to be a major institution for high tech innovations”, the electronic brochure confides. High tech innovations that Americans will gladly pay for, considering they’ve largely gone out of the business of making them for themselves.What do cybersecurity experts think about the risk of cyberespionage? Well, we could ask Jeffrey Carr, the expert who thinks Russia is a state that is leading the development of the newest global security threat. What do you think about Chinese cyberespionage, Jeffrey?
“People inflate fear about China, but China has no interest in attacking the U.S. They want the same things that any country would want. And they’re going about it the same way that we would go about it. We’re doing espionage. We’re looking after our interests. We’re exerting our will as a nation. It’s silly to try to take the moral high ground here. It doesn’t serve any useful purpose.”
Do tell. But let Medvedev make a statement like the electronic brochure above, substituting “Skolkovo” for “Tsinghua Science Park”, and western journalists line up to piss on his shoes.