National security thinkers are still debating whether a"“Digital Pearl Harbor" is possible. But in the ongoing revolution in Syria, the cyber battleground is already strewn with interesting proofs-of-concept.
In 2007, the world may have witnessed a spectacular cyberattack when the Israeli military is said to have blinded Syrian air defenses prior to an air strike on a Syrian nuclear reactor.
In 2011, as the winds of the Arab Spring blew into Syria, the hacker group Anonymous defaced the Syrian Ministry of Defense homepage, telling its soldiers: "You are responsible for protecting the Syrian people... Defend your country -- rise up against the regime!"
In March 2012, with the revolution already in high gear, computer hackers published the contents of President Assad's personal email account, in which he joked about democratic reforms, spent thousands on consumer goods, and took advice from Iran on how to handle the rebellion.
These days, the pro-government "Syrian Electronic Army" is stealing Twitter accounts in order to spread propaganda, and international firms are helping Assad to keep an eye on political dissidents.
All of these examples of cyberattack are significant, certainly from a tactical, battlefield perspective. However, the most important expression of cyberpower in Syria today is the Information Revolution itself, which has strategic, life-changing implications for every citizen and government on the planet.
In 1982, there was an uprising against President Assad's father in the Syrian town of Hama, during which the government "leveled" parts of the city with artillery fire and killed "many thousands" of Syrian citizens.
Basically, the difference between 1982 and 2012 is the Internet. In 1982, the government had "cut all telephone and road communication with the city," and there were no reporters present to witness the rebellion or its suppression, as noted in Robert Fisk's Pity the Nation.
Thankfully, the world now has a wide range of digital social media -- and yes, hacker groups -- to help us understand what is happening in Syria. Today, anyone with an Internet-connected computer possesses the historical equivalent of a printing press and a radio transmitter.
In 16th century Italy, Machiavelli wrote in The Prince: "I hold it to be true that Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less."
Today, Fortune -- which is increasingly defined by the ubiquity and authority of the Internet -- controls an ever-increasing percentage of any national leader's actions. There is now a "network perspective" against which facts can be checked and dubious witnesses cross-examined. The lifetime of a secret, and especially a lie, is shorter than ever.
Authoritarian governments have taken notice and are now considering whether they can take control of the Internet -- and save themselves from the next cyber revolution.
— Kenneth Geers, NCIS Cyber Subject Matter Expert