When India last week gloated about testing a long-range missile that could
deliver a nuclear payload to any Chinese city, all it provoked was a yawn.
The next war, when it happens, won’t be fought with missiles. It will be a cyberwar.
And it may already have started.
The UK Guardian, also last week, reported that the US and China apparently have been secretly engaged in cyberbattles with the intent of testing limits and preventing cyberprobes from triggering devastating counterattacks. Warfare, at least in the lofty reaches of Beijing and Washington, has gone digital.
The only question worth asking now is, how to fight back? And the answer may trigger truly revolutionary thinking that changes how we view war and who fights it for us.
A plain fact: The potential to devastate a country -- without firing a bullet, let alone a missile -- is more real than ever.
Ground zero just might be Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, because it already fought, and lost, a cyberwar. That happened in 2007 when the country was brought near collapse by a denial-of-service attack that shut down the government, banks, media, just about everything. No one has taken responsibility, but the events occurred after Tallinn ignored Russian outrage over a plan to move a Soviet-era statue of a Russian soldier.
"We were frankly shocked," said Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves at an April talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Botnets attacked all aspects of society."
Of course there are other greatest hits of cyberwar, such as Stuxnet; China’s alleged assault on Google (though China’s authorship was never proved); the Russian dismantling of much of Georgia’s ability to function during that brief bombs-and-bullets war; and also the cyberwarfare that surrounded all players in Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution.”
Around the world, just about every day, there are so many instances of cyberwar, both small and large, they scarcely register as news anymore.
In South Korea, cyberwar -- apparently originating in North Korea -- now is a daily occurrence. Theft of money to assist the cash-strapped northern regime apparently is a key driver of those attacks.
Meantime, somebody -- still unidentified -- brought down five Muslim extremist Websites and kept them down for a couple of weeks. The US, French, and Spanish governments have all been suggested as probable actors, but nobody has confirmed anything.
As attacks become commonplace, that’s triggering new thinking inside the Beltway. What if instead of looking to generals and admirals in the Pentagon to craft counterattacks, we looked instead to technologists and propeller-heads -- especially inside leading tech businesses?
Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano now is on record saying
that Beltway insiders are “contemplating” unleashing private sector proxies to perform what amounts to acts of cyberwar aimed at foreign governments and their assets.
In a meeting with the San Jose Mercury News, Napolitano seemed ready to unleash the private proxies of cyberwar. As reported in the paper:
In discussing the private partnerships she is promoting to combat cyberattacks, Napolitano was asked if instead of just taking defensive measures, the government and companies should be launching proactive counterattacks against foreign-based culprits. “Should there be some aspect that is in a way proactive instead of reactive?” she responded, and then answered her own question with “yes.” She added, “it is not something that we haven't been thinking about.”
Yes, the legality of private companies conducting what looks a lot like war, 21st-century style, is questionable. But Napolitano’s remarks are part of a gathering Beltway bloc that supports extending military-type powers to private companies. A bill now circulating in the US House of Representativeds offers companies explicit protections when “acting in good faith” in protecting their networks.
Might that mean giving an OK to a Google attempt to take down China’s IT infrastructure when it believes that country is attempting to take Google down?
I don’t have a problem with that.
— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.