Technical skill, sovereignty and a bit of Carl Schmitt

A couple of stories emerged today that I think link together quite well - one shows off the (somewhat frightening) dexterity of advanced technical skill, while another completely misunderstands it. However, both demonstrate how technical knowledge represents a sort of threat - real or not. They can evade and ignore rules, but also require their own set of rules or focus to be ‘effective’ or ‘productive’.

Chinese cyberspies are moonlighting as cybercriminals

The first is this article from MIT Tech Review which reports on research from U.S. security research company FireEye. The company believes Chinese cyber-spies are making extra cash through cybercrime.

The group, called APT14, typically serve the Chinese state by gaining access to western intellectual property and data. However, it has emerged that the same group have been engaged in criminal activities that range from ransomware attacks to accessing video game production environments to steal virtual currency.

This story is interesting as it highlights the way in which advanced technical skill can simultaneously be a tool of the state and something that can operate outside of it.

Carl Schmitt and sovereignty

This reminds me Carl Schmitt and his ideas around sovereignty and the state of exception. This is the notion that the sovereign embodies the law but is also the only one who is able to step outside of it in order to maintain it. “Sovereign is he who decides the exception” begins his book Political Theology.

Schmitt (who was a Nazi incidentally) was writing in the middle of the twentieth century long before cybercriminals and spies entered the public imagination. This means the idea that a nation state (and its leaders) might behave in this way isn’t new.

But in this instance these cyber-spies have gone one step further. Not only are they agents of the Chinese state’s sovereignty, their technical skill and knowledge position them as their own sovereign agents. They are both an instrument in the rule of law, but also a threat to it.

This feels a little confusing and I’m not sure I’ve necessarily explained it that well, but I think it provides another way of thinking about the link between technology and politics.

By this I don’t just mean the way technology creates echo chambers and atomization, or that it perpetuates fake news, but more specifically the way it both aligns with and transcends traditional state-based institutions. Think of Amazon providing technology for the military and law enforcement services. It supports those institutions, but it’s pursuit of profit through borderless, frictionless hyper-capitalism also undermine and threaten them.

National cyberservice - a stupid idea that’s telling

It’s this sort of stuff that made this story - which has been roundly mocked on Twitter - weirdly timely.

The idea it puts it puts forward - a National Cyberservice in which young people would put down Fortnite in order to protect the U.K. from the likes of APT14 - is like a bathetic echo of the MIT Tech Review story above. Instead of military intelligence hackers earning a quick buck, we’re talking about bored teens putting down fortnite for work experience at GCHQ.

Okay, so it’s maybe not that stupid, but it’s not far off. “Imagine the potential of Jaden Ashman, the runner-up in last month’s Fortnite World Cup finals, if he were to train as a cyberdefender after completing secondary school.”

This is clearly ridiculous, but what is interesting is the idea that children’s ‘technical skill’ (even if the idea that Fortnite is somehow advanced technical expertise is daft) needs to be put to use in some way.

It’s almost as if it represents a threat to the established order.

And while it might well be true that there’s a talent shortage (as the article mentions), the fact that the organizing principle for this drive is the needs of the state speaks volumes.

The conversation around technical skills is wildly contradictory. On the one hand technology is problematic, difficult, too much even, while on the other everything is presented as half-formed, poorly done and ill-equipped. Which is it, really?