Government, Liberty, and Cyber Security

By: Wedge Greene

The First Cyber War

Recently it seemed likely that we were on the verge of the first, global cyber war. Large DDoS attacks that gradually escalated over the last 12 months gave rise, in mid-October, to a massive, prolonged, sophisticated, multi-front attack on Internet infrastructure. Now it appears this was malicious and not a state-supported attack. But this should not make us more relaxed.

Before this fall, several years of successful and widespread state sponsored data hacking only resulted in squirreling away data for the attacker’s future advantage. Now, a foreign state leveraged use of hacked data, specifically the theft of the DNC emails and their publication, to impact the U.S. election. Some speculated, without disclosing any authentication, that a hidden U.S. retaliation had led to that massive DDoS attack, that it was a flexing of opposition muscles.

Our current situation shows similarities to the Cold War, a series of skirmishes between 1947 and 1991 that probed the readiness of the superpowers. A balance of power allowed the Cold War to continue for decades.  It became hot only in limited geographical instances and through proxy players. Eventually, when the equilibrium failed, mostly through the unbalanced economic power, the U.S. and EU, appeared to emerge as a temporary winners. But periods of peace can allow the losers to recover and reset.

A key question is whether these circumstances will continue as a Cyber Cold War or become a hot, global digital conflict. If it goes hot, as the current cyber attack probes seem to be forecasting, how long before valuable data centers and data communication hubs are considered reasonable targets in the rules of engagement – not just as targets of DDoS, but of drones, operatives, or troops?

War destroys infrastructure. America became the post WWII power largely because its manufacturing and economic infrastructure was sheltered from attack and left intact at the war's end. The digital highway is much more open and easier to reach than geography. We have no natural barriers to attack. Perhaps it is time to develop policies and technology that can restrict attacks along the Internet. But one thing is certain: the infrastructure of data communication companies and ISPs are and will continue to be prime targets of cyber warfare.

This Cyber Cold War will be virtual and as slippery and as hidden as circumstance allows. It will be a war of competing interests and a multitude of players. Basically, for the traditional power blocks we have the NATO nations, Russia, and China. But this will be a very democratic war. The virtual nature of cyber war allows for low thresholds for new players to enter. Unaligned nations like India seem to be on the sidelines, but for how long? Terrorists, like the anarchists that predated WWI, will leverage this as another front for their disruptions. Further, in this postmodern age, corporations have become principle victims of cyber attacks. In this theater, large, technically-sophisticated corporations have many of the same means and resources as governments. Currently, corporations are becoming more effective as defensive players. How long before they become aggressive players? Will cyber war become the extension of "economic competition" by other means?

Can these outside economic drivers and terrorist agendas destabilize this cold war? Perhaps we are one mistaken response away from turning the war hot.

The USA recently learned that its political autonomy can be altered by illegal data hacks and information releases within the gray spaces of the international web space. But on the brighter side, the USA is still a feared actor in international cyber war. In response to escalating cyber incursions against voting infrastructure, the USA laid down an ultimatum. It was reported by major news networks that USA agents privately met with over 100 known clandestine operatives and informed them that any attacks on the U.S. infrastructure or election machinery on election day would be met with massive, all out retaliation by U.S. Cyber Command. So we invoked the cyber analogy to MAD – mutual assured destruction. It seems all the player nations are good at offensive cyber incursions, but by evidence, poor at cyber defense. This is a lot similar to when parity in nuclear arms drove stability in the cold war through mutual terror.


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