Eisenhower and the Internet

I've never really thought of Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States, as a prophet. The former general, politician and university president seemed more of a technocrat, a dry-as-dust sort of fellow fit for the 1950s, but not much more. He was Ozzie and Harriet's president; not mine.

Shane Harris has me reassessing my view. His book "@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex," also inspired me to re-read Eisenhower's farewell address from 1961, the speech which made famous the notion of a "military-industrial complex."

Eisenhower warned that the tools we use to defend ourselves from others are easily turned against us in silent, unintended ways. Harris warns chillingly that personal anonymity, a necessary precondition to privacy, may be incompatible with cybersecurity.

As manufacturing and industry is replaced by digital technology, a new behemoth arises—the military-internet complex, Harris warns. This new beast's tentacles reach far deeper into the national soul than the military-industrial complex ever did.

In the 1950s and 1960s, we armed ourselves against communism, with big industry and big government becoming permanent fixtures in an ideological conflict waged in the name of liberty. "Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea," Eisenhower said.

We acquired a permanent, standing army mobilized always for total war against others. This army threatened, Eisenhower warned, the very liberties in whose name it was assembled.

Big money and big guns could become a toxic combination, Eisenhower noted: "The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded."

Digital technology has changed the world, and is changing the world, even as you read this. We're interconnected with one another in ways hitherto unimaginable. Our vocabulary is changing: We live in cyberspace, we've social media, flash mobs, bytes, thumb drives, laptops. We shop, bank and flirt online. Hackers can sit a continent away and disrupt the lives of strangers with keystrokes.

The opportunity to communicate broadly and instantly is, of course, wonderful. But it comes at a cost. We've also become extraordinarily vulnerable as a result of this interconnectedness. Individuals, communities and governments can, and do, use these new tools to harass, intimidate, and even to wage war on one another. Chinese hackers routinely troll the North American power grid, looking for easy ways to shut it down; organized crime trolls the Internet looking for ways to pick your pocket; our government has the potential to track every keystroke of every citizen.

As Harris argues in "@War," big government and big business have grown even more powerful, more intertwined, since Eisenhower's time. Both spend billions on trying to master cyberspace. Information is now both a resource and a weapon. Espionage, forever a human tool of statecraft, has gone digital.

The next war, Harris warns, may rely less on guns and tanks than drones, malware and keystrokes. Can you conquer an adversary by collapsing its power grid, crashing its financial networks and disrupting communications? Harris reveals the extent to which corporations and intelligence communities are trying to find out, both defending their interests against the attacks of others, and preparing to attack others—all in cyberspace.

In the meantime, we're doing a pretty good job of tearing ourselves apart.

Listen to Eisenhower: "Down the long lane of the history yet to be written America knows that this world of ours, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect."

I read that line and thought of the silliness that dominates online communications. There's a new outrage every week. Indeed, rage, hatred and mockery are the coins of the social media realm. Nothing scores hits on a website like a little gratuitous snark. Lawyers think nothing of boasting of their metrics on their blogs. I've seen seasoned lawyers chortle about the ratio of followers to those whom they follow on Twitter. We've become a nation of senseless gossips.

"Such a confederation must be one of equals," Eisenhower said of our nation. "The weakest must come to the conference table with the same confidence as do we, protected as we are by our moral, economic, and military strength." Did he foresee just how wide the gap between rich and poor would grow? In our time, the chasm has become a divide so deep it threatens to swallow any sense of common purpose.

Harris's book is brilliant. It is must reading for lawyers, foreshadowing, as it does, the forces already at work in the world that will require the law to adapt. What to make of civil liberties in an age in which anonymity is at risk? What to do when the very technology that defines us threatens values and legal doctrines on which we depend? Welcome to a brave new world.


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© Norm Pattis is represented by Elite Lawyer Management, managing agents for Exceptional American Lawyers
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