Cyber Warfare a new WMD?

Contributor:  Nick Younker
Posted:  11/17/2010  12:00:00 AM EST
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Over the last year there have been multiple instances of breaches in cyber security in the DoD and government.  Most recently a report detailing the fact that in April massive amounts of internet data traffic was re-routed through servers in China which then had access to the potentially sensitive information.  The incident which lasted 18 minutes was traced back to China Telecom, a state owned telecommunications firm.  The data included information from .mil and .gov sources as well as large corporations such as Microsoft and IBM.

It is not clear if any compromising information was gained from this effort or how or if any of the gathered data will be used.  But it is concerning for many of the agencies and companies involved as they are unsure of where they stand or what could potentially be used against them in the future.

This is not an isolated incident and the U.S. government and the Pentagon have been battling cyber attacks, hacking, and other forms of internet crime for years now.  However, in the last several years these attacks are growing in number and sophistication and are resulting in security breaches that could have grave consequences.  Many seem to be coming from sources in Eastern Europe including Russia and an increasing number from China.  However, it is unclear whether these attacks can be linked to government intelligence networks or are a result of cyber terrorists operating on their own personal agenda.

Methods of Attack

The fact that attacks can be launched from nearly anywhere with an internet connection creates a field of battle within cyber warfare that is enormous and growing larger with each new computer plugged into the internet or connected to wi-fi.  This also creates an enemy that is nearly impossible to identify or track as they can change locations and computers so quickly that identifying them can be a near impossible task.

Additionally, cyber warfare can be conducted in both by conventional or insurgent methods which make it a particularly nasty threat.  Governments can and do have agencies with computer and network programming experts that are both defensive and offensive in nature.  The U.S. military (specifically the USAF) and FBI are known to have cyber divisions.

Though most governments will claim only to have and use defensive capabilities to protect their national security and interests.  It is very likely however, that most powerful nations including the United States have top secret clandestine offensive capabilities ready to be employed in worse case scenarios.  This is similar to the way many nations try to deny WMD capability while actually possessing it.

The insurgent side of cyber warfare can be conducted by terrorists operating out of extremist ideology or with possible criminal intent to steal information or money for personal gain.  Either way, these particular threats can pop up from anywhere at any time and are very difficult to track, monitor, identify, or predict.

What makes matters even more complicated is that intelligence agencies now recruit top cyber hackers to operate undercover with very little noticeable connection to any government agency or organization.  But they are used to gather information or destabilize an enemy nation’s infrastructure.  This is yet another side of cyber warfare or cyber espionage that spy organizations are finding very useful to accomplish their goals.

Possible Consequences of Attack

So far there has yet to be any cyber attack on the United States that has caused major damage or widespread panic.  Think something that would be equivalent in scope to a WMD attack.  It seemed highly unlikely not long ago but with each passing year cyber attacks are becoming more prevalent, coordinated, and sophisticated.  Now it appears only a matter of time before an organization or individual attempts or has the means to launch one.  Or in the case of a war between major powers where governments begin to use cyber methods to attack one another openly.

So what is at stake?  What could damage could really be inflicted by computer networks?  Is it plausible that the internet and computer networks have become as powerful as missiles, bombs, and guns in the realm of warfare?  The answer is yes.  The entire U.S. financial system (not to mention most of the world) is heavily dependent on computers for everything.  Any major disruption or scrambling of data could send world markets into chaos and trigger a run on the banks type panic as people become concerned their assets are no longer safe.

Also, most electrical grids and distribution systems are controlled through computer networks.  There are real threats of viruses that can take control of large scale industrial operations and critical control systems.  A large scale successful cyber attack could potentially put a nation into darkness for a prolonged period of time.  Not just darkness in homes but also a government blinded to possible incoming attack and loss of the ability to retaliate (such as launch nukes).

Lastly, the military has become heavily dependent on computers to communicate, coordinate, and strike.  A successful cyber attack on military computer systems could leave military commanders blinded and defenseless.  Or worse yet could allow enemies to take control of American weapons systems and use them against the United States.

All of this combined points to cyber threats becoming a clear danger to national security and why the Pentagon and government seem to be scrambling to stay one step ahead to prevent catastrophe.  Whichever nation or organization gains the upper hand in this domain will be able to impose its will or reign of terror to a large degree on the rest of the modern world.

It is fortunate that the United States has been able to maintain an advantage thus far.  However, like with other pressing issues such as the control and militarization of space, economic superiority, and naval power projection the gap is closing between Superpower America the rest of the world.  If the gap closes too far in regards to cyber warfare it could mean severe consequences for the United States.

Nick Younker Contributor:   Nick Younker

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