Cyber Warfare Attacks Could Come from Anywhere

Published 6/3/10
Singularity Hub
Image: NBCUniversal

If the concept of remote-controlled war doesn’t scare you, we don’t know what will. A recent report compiled by former White House Homeland Security advisor Paul Kurtz details an unfolding “Cyber Cold War” in which countries like the United States, Russia, China and Israel are preparing for cyber offensives by amassing cyber weapons and conducting espionage—all in preparation to use the Internet for war. The report titled “Virtually Here: The Age of Cyber Warfare” says that although we haven’t seen a ‘hot’ cyber war between major powers, there is evidence that nation-states are beefing up their cyberattack capabilities. The steady rise in computational power and global connectivity, along with accelerating technologies like artificial intelligence, magnifies the threat of a catastrophic cyber event. What’s even more alarming is what this could mean for the future of cyber-terrorism.

Hackers and criminals can do enough harm to foreign or domestic networks on their own, but when backed by nation states, the resources and potential of these mercenaries increase significantly. Millions flock to the World Wide Web for their share of real-time information via Twitter and other social media platforms. But in the blink of an eye, a multitude of connections could be pulled under by a single act of cyber-terrorism, as we saw during the 2009 denial-of-service attack when Twitter, Google and other platforms were temporarily taken out by Georgian political activists. The world felt virtual aftershocks for days. But the effects of cyber-terrorism aren’t confined to virtual space. Whole communications infrastructures, like air traffic control operations at airports, are vulnerable to attack. One wrong signal or communications blackout could mean a great number of casualties. What’s more is that cyber criminals can exploit weaknesses in networks, transforming personal computers into virtual Trojan armies. Cultivating botnets of computers worldwide can wreak havoc on networks by proliferating spam or harmful viruses. It can also flood those networks with false traffic—like what happens during a denial-of-service attack—in order to cripple portions of the global network, in effect using the most constructive attributes of connectivity for insidious purposes. But familiar scenarios like these raise little concern compared with those we haven’t yet faced.

Fifty years following the Internet’s conception, the most powerful governments can theoretically take out the power, water, communications, and information infrastructures of their adversaries without ever launching a single missile. And while advancements in artificial intelligence and robotics make it easier than ever to imagine wars without people, cyber warfare remains particularly disturbing because it lives entirely in virtual space. Because of the virtual nature of cyber warfare, it’s tough to track the origin of attacks and tougher still to track who is giving those orders. Nations like China and Russia are notorious for cyber crime—it’s easier to employ a mercenary to conduct your cyber espionage for you than to risk ruffling the feathers of another superpower. To compound the complexity, virtual space has always been much harder to regulate, and creating a legal framework for virtual activities is a challenge. How can governments survey—much less control—the mobilizing of cyber forces abroad? How can they effectively counter cyber espionage?

United States networks are targeted by foreign cyber attacks millions of times each day; to counter this, the current administration allocated more than 350 million dollars last year to secure the nation’s infrastructure and beef up intelligence around cyber activities. The U.S. has, in fact, added “cyber” as its own domain of military options, now joining land, sea and air. And while cyber threats are more than real, the nebulous nature of how and from where these attacks originate makes for an unstable situation between nation states.

Before we get too anxious, there is one conceivable failsafe. McAfee, the company that released the cyber warfare report, says that what might very well keep this war from escalating is the growing state of global interconnectedness; the same network that makes this war possible can also deter it. It’s a similar dynamic we’ve seen with the proliferation of nuclear arms—no government in their right mind would want to unleash the catastrophic effects of nuclear fallout on a global scale. But this rationale is predictable only when it comes to nation-states. There is still the matter of nations employing untraceable mercenaries to do their dirty work. There is also the question of how corporations might use cyber warfare to further profits and protect fortunes. Power in the hands of an unregulated (and largely invisible) few raises the stakes. Regulating online activities could mean a greater loss of privacy for web users in years to come. This could redefine consumer trust and what it means to be protected by one’s government. New laws will dictate how the Internet is used across the board. But at least we’ll be safe, right?

Because the way we conduct our conflicts reflects current states of society, terrorism will no doubt follow the trend of traditional warfare in seeking out new virtual battlefields. It’s a bit disconcerting to think of what a nameless hacker somewhere on the other side of the globe is capable of doing to us while we sleep. And that those orders could be anonymously coming from a government that doesn’t like us very much. Cyber warfare not only represents a new consequence for failed politics, but its informational nature suggests it may be more widely used by corporations and terrorists in years to come. The implications are far-reaching, the possibilities endless. Like nuclear war before it, cyber warfare shows us, in frightening fashion, the horrifying nature of our destructive potential. But unlike nuclear war, cyber warfare offensives can be committed by a single person with a computer anywhere in the world. This reality calls for radically different solutions. We will no doubt see the threat of cyber warfare escalate as technology accelerates toward the singularity. But the real question is how we will keep this growing menace in check, and what it will mean for the First Amendment and for communication in general.