2013 was the year of cybersecurity

January 7

Chinese Web users visit an Internet cafe in Beijing. (Elizabeth Dalziel/AP)

Cybersecurity came up so many times in 2013 that it was easy to miss how quickly and completely it became a central feature of how we think about U.S. foreign policy and national security. Partly, this was an inevitable result of technology becoming more pervasive. And partly it was just an extension of things that had begun in earlier years, such as the U.S. use of cyberattacks on the Iranian nuclear program, which started in 2010.

But there was something more than that. Cybersecurity was everywhere in 2013. It played an unusually significant role in big, important stories such as the U.S.-China relationship and the Syrian civil war. At times, it was the story: the rise of the "hack back" industry or, most famously, the revelations of National Security Agency snooping leaked by Edward Snowden. Countries are trying to figure out how to navigate a world in which hacking plays an increasingly important role -- and so, for that matter, are regular Internet users around the world. You might say that 2013 was the year that cybersecurity became, like it or not, an enduring and major feature of foreign policy and national security writ large.

I discussed these trends and a lot more with Peter W. Singer and Allan Friedman of the Brookings Institution, who've just co-authored a new book, "Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know." Our conversation was hosted and led by Ryan Evans of the Center for the National Interest for the War on the Rocks podcast, recorded at the Jefferson Hotel bar. The hour-long, whiskey-fueled discussion is embedded here:

I'd encourage you to listen to the end; the second half, I thought, includes the most interesting exchanges. In a sign of just how much we had to discuss, the hour ended before we'd even had a chance to get to Snowden and the NSA, except in passing. As Evans said in setting up the discussion, cyber now pervades everything.

For me, a big indication of cybersecurity's growing importance was the role it played in developments affecting the U.S.-China relationship, arguably the most important bilateral tie in the world. Revelations of frequent and intensive Chinese hacking into everything from the U.S. military to American media companies, much of it traceable back to Chinese military compounds, threatened to rock the entire the relationship. When President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met for a special "shirtsleeves" summit in California this summer, cybersecurity and hacking overshadowed what was supposed to be an opportunity for friendly bonding. One lesson from that was that the world's two most powerful countries have to adapt to a new reality -- in which they're constantly being hacked in ways they weren't before -- and still get along.

Even the conflict in Syria, which you might not expect to have a big cybersecurity component, spawned freelance attacks by an informal and unsophisticated but highly aggressive group called the Syrian Electronic Army, which at one point temporarily tipped the stock market by $136 billion.

Even the Korean Peninsula, which has technically been in a state of war since the 1950s, saw cyber conflict becoming more important. South Korean banking institutions were hacked -- a pretty significant breach --  in what most analysts assume was a North Korean attack.

We also talked about the potential Balkanization of the Internet; the hacker collective Anonymous; how countries are dealing -- and not dealing -- with the new cyber challenges; and, especially worrying, the degree to which U.S. policymakers often don't understand the cybersecurity issues on which they are leading U.S. policy. Singer pointed out that one White House official he spoke to, who was preparing to travel to China for cyber negotiations, didn't know what an ISP is. (It's an Internet service provider.) Hopefully the official will pick up Friedman and Singer's book.

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