TIBET: THE LABORATORY RAT OF GLOBAL CYBER WARFARE?

THE TIBETAN FRONT LINE OF THE CONTEMPORARY SECURITY STATE

Thanks to the unending flow of top secret documents  going public, we now know that every state spies on everyone, not only to monitor terrorists but also to manoeuvre for military, political and commercial advantage.

We have long known China does this, to intercept the military and commercial secrets of rivals; and to censor and disrupt the communications of its own citizens and critics. But now we know everyone who has the capability does it, because they can. Cyberwarfare has become the norm, hidden behind the vague rationale that this is nothing new; this is merely the anarchy of global international relations loosed upon the world.

Now that the extent of this each-against-all world is known, we can start to trace the lineages of this new absolutism, this Hobbesian world where the strong take full advantage of the weak. How did we come to a situation where it is regarded as fair enough, inevitable, even normal, that the nation-states of the world regard all others as competitors and/or enemies, whose weaknesses are to be exploited?

The simplest answer is that the spy agencies of all powerful nations do this because they can, because they managed for a decade or more to keep it largely secret, because both legislation and popular concern lag far behind their new technical capabilities to intercept everything and anything. We could say that the post-9/11 security state has normalised such measures; and that the 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center coincided with an exploding capacity to intercept all electronic communication. We can look back on the past decade, or 13 years, as a turning point, a time when Islamic fundamentalism was answered by a security fundamentalism that has become pervasive and toxic.

As we look back over the years since 2001, Tibet looms large, as the laboratory in which these new tech advances were trialled, tested, and perfected. The Tibetans were the laboratory rats, on whom all the new technologies of interception, deception, disruption, disinformation and destruction of the enemy’s communications system, were trialled. The new weapons of cyber warfare were, as is now well known, trialled by the Chinese government, with the Tibetans, in and beyond Tibet, their front line.

As a frequent visitor to Tibetan communities in India, I often met bright young tech heads who were into helping the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetans maintain some integrity and security of their computer systems, to be alert to hack attacks and secret siphoning of data to nearly untraceable addresses in China. A decade ago, as the stories slowly grew, that China was attacking not only the Tibetans, but American corporate secrets, even the US military, seeking to copy stealth fighter jets and missiles, it seemed quite obvious that the Tibetans were the front line, and successful cyber attacks on the Tibetans were then replicated on other targets in the US military and corporate worlds.

It occurred to me that the defences invented by those tech heads, young unpaid volunteers working alongside exiled Tibetan web managers and computer systems administrators,  were valuable, not only to the Tibetans, but much more widely. Naively, I asked one or two if they were able to sell their expertise to American corporations which were starting to realise they too were vulnerable to “day zero” attacks by newly invented viruses and other malware that sought to penetrate their commercial secrets. I asked a few times if they could make a little money, to keep their volunteer work at the front line going, by offering their knowledge, as consultants to the American computer industry. Well, they said, we get a few nibbles here and there, a few approaches, mostly from computer security consultancies seeking to make a reputation for themselves as being the most advanced and successful in protecting clients, but that’s all.

At first I thought it a bit odd. Maybe the Tibetans were just too obscure, too far off the radar, to be recognised as a front line. But years went by, and I kept, occasionally, wondering. The more news that came out about the extent, depth and sophistication of Chinese penetration of American defence and business secrets, the more I expected to see American cyber warfare defence experts swarming Dharamsala, the Himalayan village that is global centre for the exile Tibetan dream of regaining space, inside Tibet, for Tibetans to be themselves.

That never happened. My puzzlement remained unanswered. Only now is it clear that every state with the capacity to do so was indeed not only monitoring the Chinese intrusions, but was busily going beyond defence to offence, to scooping as much data as possible, from wherever possible. They were and are all doing it to each other, and there is now no phone or computer that is safe, no telecommunication that is private, no clear distinction between defence and offence. Data collection on a staggering scale has become so routine that the states amassing it  now struggle to make use of more than a tiny fraction of it.

I used to think the governments of the western world were reluctant to speak up for the Tibetans because they feared China’s punishment, even though China’s threats seldom amount to much more than a loss in Norwegian sales of smoked salmon.[1] Again, I was naïve. They did know, they were watching, and they were doing the same themselves, while preferring to keep it all as quiet as possible.

The Tibetans were the lab rats, not only for China but for the global cyberwar machine. The Tibetans, under the Dalai Lama, have long called for “universal responsibility”, and for the west to adopt a  more unified response to China, to avoid being picked off one by one for Chinese reprisals. But in a realpolitik dog-eat-dog world, universal responsibility is a naïve, impossible dream. Reality is each against all, to the winners go the spoils.

This is not the first time the Tibetans have been used, and abandoned, by outside forces. In the 1960s, the US Central Intelligence Agency trained and armed the Tibetan resistance which had been steadily beaten back by China’s Liberation Army in a war which lasted years, ending with the exiled Tibetans being flown to American bases in the Pacific and the Rockies for insurgency training. A decade later, Richard Nixon, in the hope of enlisting China as an ally in containing the Soviet Union, made his historic deal with China, the Tibetans were hastily dropped, an embarrassment to the new normal.

In 1904, the British invaded Tibet, having persuaded themselves that the Tibetans were flirting with the Russian empire, and that Tsarist Russia, already overextended, had serious designs on Tibet. Having invaded, finding not only no Russians but also no Tibetan officials with whom to negotiate, the British eventually withdrew. But the damage had been done: thousands of Tibetans dead, and in the longer term, the clearest possible message to China that the entire world must join the global system of exclusive nation-states. Tibet must become China’s, or risk becoming someone else’s colony. The most remarkable consequence of the British conquest of Lhasa is not that it was pointless, but that it took China a further 45 years to create an army strong enough to make Tibet Chinese.

In all these historic moments, Tibet has been a pawn of bigger games, the Great Game as the British grandly called it. In the ascendency of the contemporary security state, Tibet yet again has been a pawn, receiving neither help nor overt sympathy from western governments as China probed, pried and destroyed Tibetan online communications. All concerned were too busy watching, learning, copying and taking their own steps to gain similar capabilities. The world is poorer, more fragmented, competitive and anarchic, as a result.



[1] Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann, Paying a visit: The Dalai Lama effect on international trade; Journal of International Economics 91 (2013) 164–177

 

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