Consent and Security

By Harold Elletson


Marxist historians assert that the so-called ‘July days’ of 1917 were of vital importance to the eventual outcome of the Russian revolution. In the same way perhaps, future historians may conclude that the events of July and August 2011 gave an indication of the nature of the security revolution that is unfolding with ever-increasing rapidity before our eyes, giving us a clear choice about which turning to take on the road ahead.


Anti Patriot Act art by David Drexler

The contours of a rapidly developing and radically different modern security environment have been thrown into sharp focus by the events of the past two months. In Norway, a young man with a political programme that was at once obnoxious and ludicrous detonated a bomb outside government buildings in Oslo before shooting dozens of young members of the ruling Labour Party. In the United Kingdom, thousands of people took part in riots in London and other cities, looting shops and businesses as part of a campaign of mass criminal activity orchestrated via social media. In Libya, rebel forces occupied Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's strongholds. And in China, a report was published by the country’s computer security agency, which purported to show that the world’s newest superpower, long the subject of accusations that it was the source of cyber attacks, was itself the victim of half a million such attacks last year alone.


What was the significance of these various events and why do they underline yet again the central importance of training and innovation in our new security environment?


Ever since the end of the Cold War, it has been increasingly clear that the nature of global security has changed. Political factors have played a part in this process but mostly it has been the result of other developments. Economic globalisation and privatisation have, undoubtedly, had a significant impact, undermining traditional security responsibilities and creating a need for new structures capable of dealing with numerous emerging asymmetric threats.


It is the revolution in communications that has happened over the last twenty years, however, which has really brought about a dramatic shift in the nature of security, forcing the rapid abandonment of old concepts and making more urgent the search for new responses to the challenges we now face.


The creation of the Internet and, with it, the emergence of new platforms for information sharing, creation, expression and learning have happened in tandem with the development of an extraordinary array of new communications technology, both of which have had a profound effect on security. The events of July and August 2011 have shown clearly some of the most important trends that characterise the pattern of development of modern security. They have also highlighted once again the central importance of effective training to response and resilience. If security planners are to match the training needs of the future to the emerging threats we all face, they must examine these various events and consider the lessons that should be learned from them.


The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik staged both the bombing of Oslo’s government quarter and the largest massacre of Norwegians since the Second World War, despite the presence of well-equipped security forces and an apparently well trained police force not hitherto renowned for its lack of professional competence. The fact that he was able successfully to carry out the slaughter, which he had apparently been planning for nine years, was an indication of the power of a single person to inflict entirely disproportionate damage on a state. In that sense, it highlighted the increasing impotence of traditional state structures and the asymmetry of modern security, both of which are characteristic of the modern security environment.


Whilst Breivik’s murderous assault was an indication of the power of even one person in today’s security environment, the London riots showed how modern communications technology can be used to channel and direct the power of crowds to the point where they were almost beyond the control of the security forces.


As shops, homes and cars were set alight by thieves and looters in London, the Libyan revolution against the Gaddafi tyranny reached its climax. The dictator’s citadels were overwhelmed and his henchmen realised that, despite all the traditional resources of state power at their disposal and the panoply of sophisticated technology for repression and control, they were unable to contain a revolution which had become possible, just as in neighbouring Egypt, largely because of communications technology.


The response of many democratic politicians, including Prime Minister David Cameron, to Britain’s riots was to demand curbs on social networking. The same people, however, had praised the influence of the same social networks in provoking the overthrow of Gaddafi and other dictators in the Arab world. Their failure to appreciate the connection between the two is evidence of a wider failure to appreciate the nature of the modern security environment.


The most important lesson to be learnt from both London and Libya is that security cannot be achieved without consent. Future conflict, as enlightened strategic thinkers, such as General Rupert Smith, have pointed out, will largely consist of “wars among the people.” Consent will be essential to any successful strategy and the ability of the likes of Gaddafi, Mubarak or Assad to coerce their people against their will be limited.


Consent requires communication, explanation and, perhaps above all, education. Switching off social networks and other such totalitarian measures are not the answer; using them more effectively to win support for reason is. In London, capital city of one of the world’s leading democracies, it would be sad if politicians felt that they could not achieve the consent of their own people to the preservation of their own security, particularly when modern communications technology affords such signal opportunities for education and persuasion to achieve consent.


Consent is surely also the answer to another of the great looming problems confronting modern security: the threat from cyber space. China and other powers (including, it has to be said, some much closer to home) have seen cyber space as a legitimate sphere of influence, in which attacks can be carried out on a rival or an enemy, often causing great damage to important infrastructure, without fear of reprisal. There is a serious problem in international law with the status of such attacks and some countries, including the United States, have been pushing for an acceptance that certain forms of cyber attack, particularly on critical infrastructure, should be considered as acts of war.


As the publication this month of a report by the Chinese agency responsible for cyber security shows, China appears to recognise that the launching of a cyber attack is not a ‘zero sum game.’ China, no doubt correctly, states that it too has been the victim of cyber attack. It is surely, therefore, high time, for a major initiative to achieve international consent about the use and protection of cyber space. If this can be achieved, it will be a major contribution to future peace. If not, it may be that historians will look back to July and August 2011 and conclude that this was yet another occasion when the international community took the wrong path.


In the meantime, whilst we continue to develop our readiness to respond to a variety of asymmetric threats, it would perhaps be as well if we started to look carefully at the immense significance of education, awareness and gentle persuasion to our whole concept of future security. Thanks largely to communications technology, the days when anyone can impose security without consent may be drawing to a close; in the future, consent will be integral to security.


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