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John Kerry: cyber conflict one of world's greatest threats

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) mentioned the need for "cyber diplomacy" during his confirmation hearing to be the next secretary of state today. No, Kerry wasn't talking about diplomats sending Someecards to one another when he dropped the term on his fellow senators.

He was discussing the need for the international community to develop a host of new standards, or norms of behavior in cyber space.

Kerry was responding for questions from Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) who called for Kerry's thoughts on the secretary of state's role "in a world where cyber security is our greatest threat."

Kerry said Durbin's description of cyber as the world's greatest threat "hit the nail on the head."

"I guess I‘d call [cyber] the 21st-century nuclear weapons equivalent," said Kerry. "We are going to have to engage in cyber diplomacy and cyber negotiations and try to establish rules of the road that help us to be able to cope with this challenge."

"There are enormous difficulties ahead in that," he added, pointing out that some nations have very different views on what norms of behavior in the cyber world should look like -- a statement echoing those made by U.S. defense officials.

"I think most diplomacy is an extension of a particular nation's interests and in some cases it's an extension of their values," said Kerry. "Sometimes, you're more weighted toward interests than values ... this is one where we're going to find a way to address the interests with other states to somehow find common ground, if that makes sense to you, we're going to have to dig a lot deeper."

Those "interests" he was referring to may have been China's alleged widespread use of cyber espionage as a tool to steal Western business and defense secrets. Russia's -- and China's -- view that it's alright for countries to monitor their citizens Internet behavior and censor what they view online, Pentagon officials have told Killer Apps in the past.

He also called cyber security bills -- legislation that has so far failed to move forward in Congress despite years of attempts -- as a "very small step in trying to deal with this issue."

"Every day while we sit here, right now, certain countries are attacking our systems, they are trying to hack in to classified information, to various agencies of our government, to banking structures -- money has been stolen from accounts and moved in large sums," said Kerry. "There's a long list of grievances with respect to what this marvel of the Internet and the technology age has brought us."

"It's threatening to our power grid, it's threatening to our communications, it's threatening therefore to our capacity to respond and there are people out there who know it," said Kerry. "There are some countries who we are engaged with -- and all the senators know who they are -- who have a very good understanding of this power and who are pursuing it."

Here's what Killer Apps reported in September about U.S effort to establish cyber norms based on the laws of armed conflict and the resistance it's met, especially from Russia and China, according to Eric Rosenbach, deputy assistant secretary of defense for cyber policy.

"There are several countries right now that are very aggressive in cyberspace and are likely trying to create norms [of cyberspace behavior] that would be unstable for the international community because they are so aggressive," Rosenbach said. "It's still not completely clear what's acceptable and what's not acceptable and several nations different than the United States have very aggressive notions of what's acceptable."

Russia and China are focused more on controlling citizens' activities on the internet rather than limiting attacks on nations' critical infrastructure, he said.

"There are other countries, the Chinese and Russians in particular, that don't think the law of armed conflict is the best framework to view these things through and they focus much more heavily on control of information than they do on the security of crucial infrastructure or preventing the destruction of networks."

Rosenbach went on to call this a "nonstarter."

"To say that your model of an international law for cybersecurity is based on controlling media content or what people can say about the government isn't something we're interested in at all," he said. "There are other areas -- in particular, the theft of intellectual property -- because that's a major problem for the United States right now, where there are very different ideas about what's acceptable and what's not."

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Let freedom ring: Gen. Cartwright says 4G is America's lasting legacy in Afghanistan (Updated)

What will the longest-lasting and perhaps most important legacy of the United States' 11-year war in Afghanistan be? A 4G  cell phone network capable of supporting smartphones. That's right, according to retired Marine Corps Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, who stepped down as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in August 2011, smartphones are the most important thing the West has introduced to Afghanistan.

"As we leave Afghanistan, the thing that will most affect that culture over the long term is leaving behind that network and those cell phones because they are talking across mountains and social barriers that heretofore have never been crossed by that culture," said Cartwright today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies during a speech on how information technologies are changing war. "I don't know where that's going to take them, but the introduction of that technology is probably far more lasting than anything else that we're going to do in Afghanistan and far more influential."

"We don't yet understand the power of these tools," he added, pointing out the literally revolutionary power of cell phones and social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, which played a role in the Arab Spring.

Update: While Cartwright said that there was a "4G network that we've already put in place in that country,"  a reader working on cell networks in Afghanistan emailed Killer Apps to clarify that there isn't a 4G network there. Instead there are "robust 2G networks" with 19 million subscribers and a "3G network coming on line at this time." The Afghan ministry of communications expects the 3G network to bring "Mobile Internet" to roughly 85 percent of the country in five years, according to the reader. 

"Even with the technical error by Gen. Cartwright, I could not agree with him more," writes the reader. "In Afghanistan, Information and Communications Technology (ICT), has the ability to transcend historical, cultural, tribal, religious and geographic boundaries in ways no other aspects of development can. Put a cell phone in the hands of an Afghan woman and you have just integrated her into the global society." 

Here's some background on the Afghans and smartphones.

A few years ago, ISAF found several problems with paying Afghan security forces. First, Afghan troops would go AWOL after receiving their pay so they could bring it home to their families because there was no reliable banking system, according to Cartwright. The other problem -- as explained to yours truly several years ago by a U.S. general involved in building up the Afghan security forces -- was that corrupt commanders would siphon off troops' cash. The solution (which your author was very skeptical of when he first heard it years ago): get the Afghan troops smartphones so they could conduct mobile banking. This way, cash could be deposited directly into the soldiers' accounts, and it could also be sent across the country to their families.

The only problem was that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimated that it would take the largely illiterate Afghan population one to two years to be fully able to use smartphones on the network that the U.S. and NATO had already put in place, according to Cartwright.

But it wound up working better than that.

"So we took iPhones and we say OK, let's try something here; we had a thousand iPhones and we handed them out across a broad part of the country and we moved to a game [in which Afghans vote for contestants on Afghanistan's version of American Idol using their mobile phones] … and ran that on iPhones, and it was more like two weeks to be comfortable with SMS text and moving data."

That's how ISAF got the Afghan troops comfortable with using smartphones.

So forget all the billions in roads, schools, military aid, and everything else the international community has spent on "nation-building" in Afghanistan. The thing that will bring about the most change is the exchange of information between a population connected by pocket-size computers, according to Cartwright.

If he's right, let's hope that the cell network survives after NATO withdraws and that Afghans are able to afford to keep buying smartphones -- a trend that, as this report by NATO's Civil-Military Fusion Center points out, is still just getting started and still faces many challenges.

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