Enders Game, a 1985 novel and 2013 film starring Harrison Ford, outlines a plot where, following an alien species invasion, a 10 year old is recruited by a global government to train to become a military leader of tomorrow. During his training he is placed in increasingly difficult scenarios until his graduation simulation involves Ender, the kid, sacrificing all his units in order to destroy the home planet of the creatures. At the end of the test, his tutors celebrate as they reveal to him it was never a test but actual real-time warfare and, without realising, he had just swiped out the enemy.
This all sounds nicely far fetched science fiction. Yet last week, Britain announced that it is recruiting almost 6,000 children from the age of 13 to become ‘experts in cyber security‘. Another phrase used by government for such posts is ‘cyber soldier’. Both phrases are bandied around by the UK government with gusto. One state department talks about how to defend against and attack foreign powers, the other talks about how it is fun online gaming. Yet both are the same thing. And it means Britain is back in the business of recruiting child soldiers.
Back in the late 20th century, the world was aghast that kids were being used as child soldiers in warfare. In 1977 additions to the Geneva Convention restricted anyone under the age of 15 from going into combat. By the 80’s, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child said that no one should be engage in hostilities before the age of 18.
Britain has always dabbled very close to this line as it still recruits kids over 16 into the military although they cannot go to the ‘front line’. Yet, in the 21st century the definition of front line becomes ever more blurred. For example, could a 16 year old fly a drone and bomb targets in a war zone and avoid being included in the definition? After all they would be happily ensconced in a base in Lincolnshire and therefore protected from the vagaries of war. But the person being fried by the bomb jettisoned by that same drone would not.
The latest British government announcement means the line between front line warfare and child soldiers becomes ever more hazy. According to the government press release the cyber security clubs for 14 year olds will be “a comprehensive cyber curriculum expected to mix classroom and online teaching with real-world challenges and hands-on work experience.”
The Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, described cyber warfare as the 21st century successor to airpower with ‘cyber soldiers influencing the whole of the armed forces’ and recruiting the next generation of ‘online warriors’. And subtly, but publicly, the Department of Culture Media and Sport along with the Department for Education is serving up 13-16 year olds to be these cyber soldiers.
The bit that worries me is the ‘real world challenges and hands on work experience.’ If they are genuine ‘real world challenges in cyber security’ then we are not talking adding a bit of HTML5 code to Angry Birds. Instead it means working out ways to switch off power grids, infiltrate nuclear power stations codes, stop water supplies, bring down satellites, turn all traffic lights to green, infiltrate government websites, disseminate misinformation, cripple military or consumer logistic supply lines and a whole lot more. In short, it means finding ways that these kids could learn to kill lots of people.
How can it be appropriate that children barely out of short trousers are being trained to start doing this sort of work at such an early age? The people who devised the conventions to stop kids going into war would never have dreamed that these teenagers could commit acts of war from their bedroom.
Yet now in 2017, Britain is starting to work towards doing exactly that. The language is misspeak and double speak, where it is talk of cyber security rather than cyber warfare and of defence rather than attack. But we should be under no illusions that, just like the Ministry for Defence is really the Ministry for Attack, the recruitment of kids to become ‘cyber security professionals’ is simply lipstick on the pig of really calling them ‘cyber soldiers’ or ‘cyber warriors’.
Some would argue that all Britain is doing is recruiting more bright minds to help with stopping ne’er do wells from infiltrating our computer systems. Yet, from understanding the UK state of mind, it is ludicrous to even think for one moment that these kids are being recruited simply to defend and protect. Britain has never been a country that has simply defended itself, but instead has been a country that snaps back, usually with force that is of a much larger magnitude than the original attack.
Maybe there is nothing wrong with that as it warns off potential aggressors from coming at the UK. But when it involves children there is something distasteful about it. However, once again, because there is no coherent or competent opposition in the UK anymore another outrageous announcement slips under the radar without even a murmur. There is no debate, consideration or discussion about the merits or the dangers. That is a sign of a country sliding into a form of right wing dictatorship and public abeyance, where cruel policies can be dressed up as kind initiatives and both the media and mainstream public fall for it hook, line and stinker.
What it is also a sign of is how science fiction and misinformation are becoming mainstream. Where lines are becoming ever more blurred between reality and a made up world. It was only in 1985 when Enders Game was written, but that future science fiction looks increasingly becoming more like science fact.