A Martian's Take on Cyber in the National Security Strategy

In the recent New York Times bestselling book, The Martian, Andy Weir depicts a future world where space travel to Mars is feasible. Through an unfortunate string of events, the book’s hero, Mark Watney, becomes stranded on Mars, unable to communicate with anyone on Earth. After watching Friday’s release of the National Security Strategy (NSS) and the way in which it mimicked last month’s State of the Union (SOTU) address, I wondered how Watney (if he makes it back to Earth – not giving the ending away!) – would interpret the major foreign policy challenges depicted in those speeches. If someone were to land on Earth after being away for years, what would they think of the state of international relations if they only based it on the NSS and SOTU? When it comes to the cyber domain, the rhetoric seems completely misaligned with the realities of the global system. But what would Watney think? Let’s imagine Watney’s interpretation of the NSS and SOTU after having been away from Earth for years…

Log Entry: Day 8

I’m not sure which is worse – being on the brink of death everyday thanks to the inhospitable environment on Mars, or coming home and learning about the various threats present in the inhospitable international environment. Sure, this isn’t really my area, but I’m dying to focus on anything besides botany and engineering for once. The good news is that, despite the laundry list of challenges, we’re in it together with China. Both the SOTU and the NSS give big props to China for its great cooperation in helping battle climate change. Well, that’s a huge relief! We certainly can’t reverse this most existential of threats without the support of the world’s most populous country and second (phew, we’re still number 1!) largest economy.

But here’s what I don’t understand. Sure, I get that climate change is important, but what does it have to do with Ebola and cyber? In each address, those three are grouped together, apparently because they all rely on international norms and cooperation and aren’t considered geopolitical. It’s strange to think that cyber doesn’t belong in the discussion about foreign adversaries like Russia, Iran and North Korea, but I’m simply an engineer, what do I know about that? I guess when it comes to cyber the key concern is privacy and individual rights. I haven’t had privacy for years, so no biggie there. I’m just glad we’re friends with China. I’d hate to relive those days of major power rivalries and espionage.

Log Entry: Day 10

At first I was thankful to finally have something to read besides Agatha Christie novels, but I’ll tell you what, this NSS is even more of a mystery when it comes to cyber. I wasn’t planning on reading it, since Friday’s release simply provided a bit more detail on the list of foreign policy challenges elucidated in the SOTU. But here’s what is interesting. If you actually read the document, there’s a single, yet important line in there that would go completely unnoticed if you listened only to the speeches. On page 24, the NSS states, “On cybersecurity, we will take necessary actions to protect our businesses and defend our networks against cyber-theft of trade secrets for commercial gain whether by private actors or the Chinese government.” What? Where did this come from? This is the concluding sentence in a paragraph that actually talks about concern over China’s military mobilization and the potential for miscalculation. So wait, China is a major cyber threat and has been stealing from us? Where did this come from? I thought we were BFFs. This is so confusing. So I went back and looked at some previous doctrine, just for the heck of it. China isn’t mentioned explicitly by name in the 2011 International Strategy for Cyberspace, and the 2010 NSS is all about seeking cooperation with China. Sooo….the speeches say one thing, the document says another, and this latest NSS takes one big step forward in surfacing China’s espionage within a strategic document. Foreign policy is not for me. I’d much rather deal with the certainty of the plant world instead of these competing narratives. In my world, any miscalculations are entirely my fault and are much more predictable than those in the foreign policy world.