Pay close enough attention to the descriptions of
America's newest enemies coming from Washington's
talking heads, and something starts to seem oddly
familiar. Haven't we heard about these people before?
Wasn't it just a few months ago that we were being
warned about their dire plans and the civil liberties
compromises required to fight them? But no. That wasn't
about Osama bin Laden at all. That was about ... about
Strange but true: The rules of engagement in
"America's New War" have a great deal in common with the
content wars of the last few years. The
-- the FBI and the CIA of the entertainment industries
-- have been involved in extended legal battles with the
music traders and software hackers of the world, and the
strategies they have employed show some striking
parallels to recent American anti-terrorist strategic
All security is insecure.
DeCSS debacle began when a 17-year-old amateur
cracked the encryption scheme on DVDs. If there's an
unpenetrated Web server or uncracked content-protection
scheme out there, it's only because no one truly
dedicated has tried to break it. As long as the media
industries rely on technology-only solutions to protect
their content, that protection is purely nominal,
falling quickly before the determined hacker.
The harsh lessons of computer security are worth
keeping in mind when thinking about terrorism. Systems
are large and complex beasts and therefore vulnerable;
the United States and its people are perhaps the largest
and most complicated system in the world. An attacker
has free choice of attacks: The hijackers last week were
able to ignore the tight physical security around the
World Trade Center by choosing an airplane-based attack
instead. Security is what you use to spot your attackers
and slow them down long enough for you to respond. Far
better to seek out your opponents than to wait for them
to come to you.
The front line of the conflict is human
Shutting down any loose network -- whether it's a
cluster of terrorist cells or a peer-to-peer
file-sharing system -- depends on closing the knowledge
gap between initiates and outsiders. The mere existence
of a strong program of infiltration has an enormous
deterrent effect: How can you recruit new members with
confidence if every potential recruit might be a plant?
There's no way to just search the Internet for
everyone running personal Web servers to share out their
MP3s, but with enough dedicated surfers, the media
companies have been able to spot most sites big enough
to worry about. The result is that people are forced
underground: They trade music in smaller networks than
in Napster's day, sacrificing convenience for safer
Something similar operates in the realm of
anti-terrorist intelligence. There's no setting on spy
satellites or metal detectors to scan for "terrorist,"
but enough skilled agents who fit in can track down any
terrorist cell that interacts with the outside world.
The MPAA had an easier time of it than the CIA will --
it's a lot easier to hire for Internet credibility than
it is to hire for radical terrorist credibility -- but
it's the credibility, rather than the technology, that
opens doors and lets the light of law enforcement in.
If you can't shut down your enemy, shut down his
When the MPAA tried to suppress the distribution of
DeCSS, it quickly discovered that many of the individual
users posting the code to the Web were prohibitively
difficult to identify, ruling out direct legal action
against them. The MPAA instead targeted their ISPs:
legally, the Web hosting companies were obligated to
take down DeCSS pages, unless the users were willing to
stand up in court and be sued. Through this sidestep,
the MPAA was able to sic its lawyers on the people it
really wanted to sue, or failing that, make the problem
In declaring that the U.S. government would not
distinguish between terrorists and regimes that harbor
terrorists, President Bush acted on the same principle.
Like the ISPs, the Taliban would prefer to be a
bystander in any conflict. By making them liable for the
safe harbors they grant, though, Bush transferred some
of the weight of U.S. pressure to a more identifiable
target -- in order to acquire greater leverage against
his real enemies.
So far, so good. But though Washington has been quick
to copy from Hollywood's playbook, it also seems
reluctant to learn from the ways in which those plays
Zealous enforcement tactics against old enemies
breed new enemies.
Before Napster, few people had strong opinions about
the record companies, and their voices were rarely
heard. But in the process of hunting down a few college
students whose main offense was liking music too much,
the RIAA managed to antagonize much of the software
community and civil libertarians everywhere.
How did they blow it so badly? By giving its old
enemies powerful new arguments, tons of publicity and an
impressionable audience to preach to. Those students and
music fans started hearing about cartels and Gestapo
tactics when they asked why their Napster wasn't showing
any songs today.
It's hardly any surprise the RIAA didn't understand
how bad the P.R. consequences of a heavy hand would be:
The U.S. as a country has a long and bloody history of
isolating moderates while it chases extremists.
What will happen if the government of Pakistan is
forced to do so much of our dirty work that it
destabilizes itself? How much ill will will we harvest
once the bombs start falling? And so on. Bold action may
sometimes solve present problems, but it carries
enormous risk of creating worse ones in the future. More
You can make them hide, but you can't rid the
world of them.
Or at least, if you can, the RIAA hasn't figured out
how. Napster went down in flames, but the Napster clones
are numerous, thriving, better-hidden and harder than
ever to take out.
Flattening your visible enemies inspires your
remaining enemies to stay invisible; unless you make
them no longer your enemies, they will find a time and a
place of their own choosing to emerge from hiding. The
best "victory" one can hope for in fighting a
decentralized foe is not to eradicate them, but only to
suppress their activities.
Try explaining this fact in Washington today, though,
and nobody seems to be listening. Has Israel been able
to eradicate Hamas? Has Britain been able even to
suppress the IRA? For that matter, how well has China
done in eliminating Falun Gong? Which raises one last
and especially disturbing point, one that ought to go
without saying ...
Terrorists are not the only people who operate in
There are other peer-to-peer rebels out there,
working in secret to change the world -- and most of
them are what we would normally think of as the good
Think of Afghan dissidents spreading the rhetoric of
democracy from Internet cafes. From the perspective of
the Afghan government, they look much the same way
terrorists who coordinate attacks through e-mail look to
us. Think of demonstrators scattering to avoid punitive
raids from the police; think of rebel leaders trying to
organize a resistance movement. A lot of people will be
watching very carefully what the United States does to
wage this new sort of war.
On the one hand every new tactic we develop to defend
democracy can be turned against the forces of democracy
somewhere else in the world. And on the other, every
bulwark the Internet provides against the anti-dissent
squads somewhere far off and repressive, it provides
also against the anti-terrorist branch of the FBI back
Technology giveth, and it taketh away. The same
filtering software that protects children from
pornography is used by repressive governments to
"protect" their citizens from critical opinions. The new
formats for compressing music designed to sell more CDs
instead became the leading techniques for its illicit
As we prepare to develop ruthless new "weapons" in
the fight against global terrorism, it is hard to
overstate the need for some reflection on the ways those
tactics might eventually be turned against us and those
principles we believe in. A strange prospect, perhaps,
but then again, until last week, how many people
seriously thought of a passenger jet as a weapon of war?