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Cyberwar and the Threat to Civilization


Cyber war’s anonymity: no button, no finger prints, no author

The American Interest published an essay, Hacking the Next War, which explores the juxtaposition between the traditional internet and the myriad benefits it’s offered to modern society, with the unplumbed destructive capacity of cyberwarfare.  The founding principles of the internet were openness and trust.  Issues like security and anticipation of abuse were after-thoughts, since the premise was that those who used the internet would behave with the best of intentions.  In many ways, the founders believed fundamentally that human beings were good.  The beauty of these concepts is that they’ve produced extraordinary amounts of commercial wealth along with an outburst of invention and creativity that have enriched modern civilization:

Today we live in a world linked by “cyberspace,” a word…[that] stands for the completely man-made substrate we all share intimately on our smart phones, tablets and desktops, and that pervades the operations of banks, airlines, electrical grids and even manufacturing plants. It stretches under and into all the relatively instantaneous (and profitable) communication, cooperation and coordination that sustain our modern quality of life. So much modern wealth now relies on cyberspace that, increasingly, groups and nations are beginning to fight in it and over it as well.

…Globalization and cyberspace are deeply intertwined…Successive waves of globalization gradually transformed classic independent, territorially buffered, autarkic states into openness-dependent, wealth-obsessed and war-averse digitized democratic commercial trading states. Nations from the European Union to South America to the democratic Asian tigers act more like the city-states of long past than early modern autarkic states capable of going to war to defend their interests. Their political leaders focus on facilitating aggressive trading benefits and forging international rules of exchange, not on preparing for destructive conflicts. Since World War II, they have built, institutionalized and lived by openness—to global commerce, finance and knowledge flows. These states now internally and legally enforce shared, relatively compatible rules on their subordinate groups and citizens. Even when international members violate the rules, no one threatens war to recoup material damages. Globalization has domesticated, as well as made more porous, the warring nation-state into a relatively defanged modern city-state dependent on the civil behaviors of other states and their citizens in the international system.

In his piece, Chris Demchak notes the rise of what he calls “bad actors.”  Those who see the web as a way to make a quick buck, or to advance an ideology.  But the author, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, makes a rather surprising assumption regarding the identity of these disruptors of global commerce.  He presumes largely that they are individuals or organizations working for money or power or even for the hell of it.  But rarely in this essay does he address the fact that the most dangerous actors, due to the potential for damage they can inflict, are states themselves.  In fact, the author downplays the impact of nation-states and calls upon the U.S. to focus on other types of intruders as more damaging and dangerous.

No doubt, hackers working individually or in concert with others wreak havoc in the marketplace.  Demchak notes the cost of such internet fraud at $130-billion to only six major corporations in 2010.  A staggering sum.  But even that pales in comparison to the damage that could be done if a nation with a sophisticated cyberwar capability would fully implement these tools against another country.

While he mentions Stuxnet as an example of such cyberwarfare, he neglects to say that individual hackers or bad actors didn’t create this tool.  Two states did.  They did so not for any of the reasons Demchak mentions in his article.  They attacked Iran to pursue interests of state.  That means it is only a matter of time before one nation unleashes the full power of these weapons against another.

Images of the horrors of war are common from the news media: pictures of the wounded or the dead, buildings toppled, smoke plumes rising over devastated landscapes.  What is especially insidious about cyberwarfare is that it is often undetected till it’s too late.  There are no bombs, no screaming fighter jets, no military heroes.  The enemy has no face, leaves no fingerprints.  There are instead streams of code, exploits and hacks.  The damage could be done before you even knew what happened.

The author suggests that among the means societies should use to frustrate such cyberattacks are preventive attacks (he uses the rather euphemistic term “disruption”) on the enemy outside the “gates” of what he imagines as the cyber city-state.  The only problem with his suggestion is that the shrouded face of cyber-attackers makes it almost impossible to pinpoint the specific identity of the perpetrator.  For example, if Iran sought to “disrupt” those who seriously damaged its uranium enrichment program what should it do?  Should it attack the home of the IDF’s Unit 8200, which likely played a major role in creating Stuxnet and other potent malware products which damaged its facilities?  Or should it devote tremendous effort to building its own cyberwar weapons to disrupt Israel’s nuclear program?

Where does this end?  It’s such a new game, we haven’t yet developed any rules.  There are certainly no international agreements governing cyberwar as there are regarding nuclear proliferation.  Yet the stakes are so high, that precisely because there are no rules, someone may make a major miscalculation and drag an entire region into conflict.

In an otherwise thoughtful and suggestive essay, this is what’s missing from Demchak’s analysis.  These bad actors won’t be, or won’t only be, Anonymous or Russian hackers.  But they will be western democracies like our own, the very entities we’re so used to thinking of as the “good guys.”  In cyber-war, the good guys could easily turn out to be the bad guys.  Aren’t we finding that out regarding a U.S. president in whom so many of us placed so much hope?  Champions of democracy could wield weapons that level broad swaths of enemy infrastructure.  Then, who is right and who is good?

Unfortunately, we can’t return to the innocence of the birth of the internet.  We can’t make human beings behave according to the “better angels of their nature.”  But we can expose the bad actors when they are nation states and make them pay a price, however small, for trespassing the bounds of civilized discourse.  We can call for international protocols governing the use of technology to pursue cyber hostilities.  We can shame those who resist because it suits their own national interests to utilize cyber-terror for the interests of state.

{ 5 comments… add one }
  • pabelmont September 15, 2012, 6:49 AM

    In my view, so-called “third rails” — like not talking about BIG MONEY when talking aloud about politics, like not talking about international law when talking about Israel, and like not talking about USA and Israeli authorship and propagation of Stuxnet — are major threats to democracy — subverting the people’s right to hear the truth which, it is sometimes said, will set them free.

    Another danger from government creation of cyber weapons is that governments require large teams to do this work and, true to USA’s well-entrenched habit of revolving doors, the people who create the weapons take at least the ideas if not the source-codes themselves out into the greater world when their personal door revolves. Not every one of them will be “well-intentioned”.

    • dickerson3870 September 15, 2012, 10:21 PM

      RE: “In my view, so-called “third rails” — like not talking about BIG MONEY when talking aloud about politics, like not talking about international law when talking about Israel, and like not talking about USA and Israeli authorship and propagation of Stuxnet — are major threats to democracy — subverting the people’s right to hear the truth which, it is sometimes said, will set them free.” ~ pablemont

      “Why the U.S. Media Barely Covered Brutal Right-Wing Race Riots in Tel Aviv”, By Joshua Holland, AlterNet, 6/17/12

      (excerpts) Several weeks back, Israel was rocked by a night of right-wing race-riots targeting African refugees in Tel Aviv. The thuggery was frightening – refugees were attacked, African-owned businesses and stores were vandalized . . .
      . . . The story received very little coverage in the United States. . .
      . . . Recently, Middle East analyst MJ Rosenberg appeared on the AlterNet Radio Hour to discuss the Tel Aviv riots, the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear program and how the Israel lobby helps narrow the discourse around Israel in the United States. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion (you can listen to the whole interview here.)
      • JOSHUA HOLLAND: From your inside perspective on that organization [AIPAC], what did you see as far as their tendency to call out criticism that they think is illegitimate or beyond the pale?
      • MJ ROSENBERG: They [AIPAC] consider all criticism of Israel illegitimate. It’s all beyond the pale. I suppose their definition would be if by some miracle someone like Joseph Lieberman made a statement critical of Israel it would be legitimate. When I worked there in the ’80s, back before everyone had computers, they had a big war room where all they did was assemble every bit of data on members of Congress, on candidates, but also on writers, celebrities – anyone in the public eye.
      In those days they would just put them in these folders. They always had at hand all this negative information — what they considered negative information — to tar people as being anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic. That stuff would be given to reporters if something came up. They were either initiated on their own to give to reporters or some reporter called them because they had a treasure trove of information.
      They still operate that way. In those days they did it directly; now they have former staffers and people who are close to the organization in the blogging world and political world who do it for them. They do it so much. When you read that someone is anti-Israel they’re the ones putting it out there. They’ve got the data. . .

      • JOSHUA HOLLAND: . . . Speaking of our discourse, I want to talk about an issue that came up recently that’s gotten very little coverage in the United States. There were a series of violent race riots by right-wing Israelis against African immigrants in Tel Aviv. This was a big deal. I was looking at the US coverage and it was amazing at how little attention these riots received. . .
      • MJ ROSENBERG: . . . This is a common thing. When there are bad things going on inside Israel — the way they treat the Palestinians and in this case the way they’re treating these poor African refugees from loathsome regimes who wind up in Israel — these stories are … I don’t want to say suppressed in the United States, but it’s striking how much coverage they get in Israel itself and how a paper like the New York Times is too scared to touch it.
      I have to say they’re afraid to touch it. The reason is when an American outlet talks about Israel in any way that’s negative, or reports on anything negative about Israel, they will be inundated with complaints from powerful people who will tell them, “why are you picking on Israel?” They always say, “why is it that China is doing all these things and you’re not writing about that?” Of course, they do. You even see it in the blogosphere too, the intimidation. If you aren’t utterly secure in your position in the media then you don’t mess with Israel. More to the point, you don’t mess with the people here who are Israel’s enforcers. . .

      ENTIRE (LIGHTLY EDITED) TRANSCRIPT – link to alternet.org

  • dickerson3870 September 15, 2012, 9:54 PM

    RE: “In his piece, Chris Demchak notes the rise of what he calls ‘bad actors’. Those who see the web as a way to make a quick buck, or to advance an ideology.” ~ R.S.


    ~ ~ ~ JIDF 4chan operations for Feb 2011 ~ ~ ~
    Jewish Internet Defense Force (offsite) – link to thejidf.org
    This upcoming February we will be launching our largest operation on 4chan and other popular image boards, our objective is to create an image of Palestinians and Lebanese being virulently anti-American and anti-Western.
    Create threads against Israel and fill them with posts from violent Jihadist Palestinians, claim to want to immigrate into the West to do Jihad, later on in the threads post links to propaganda films like Pallywood.
    • Exploit massive Lebanese immigration into Australia as a reason why the Australian people should support Israel.
    • Claim that Israel helps stop Muslim immigration into the West.
    • Post propaganda threads linking to Palestinian and Lebanese suicide bombers and other Muslim extremism, in these threads also reply as a Jew who has been affected by Jihadist violence, explain to the readers that Muslims are a threat to the West.
    Start threads claiming to be Lebanese-Americans or Palestinian-Englanders, portray yourselves as extremely anti-Israel, later on in these threads claim to be a Jew disgusted by the behavior of the Lebanese/Palestinian man.

    MD5: 98bc2f5ba195396e3958bcec640a4292-7-6-6-2-5-8-2-1-8-9-3-6-7-8-4-5-6

    SOURCE – link to niqnaq.wordpress.com

    P.S. What is 4chan?
    4chan is a simple image-based bulletin board
    where anyone can post comments and share images. There are boards dedicated to a variety of topics, from Japanese animation and culture to videogames, music, and photography. Users do not need to register an account before participating in the community. Feel free to click on a board that interests you and jump right in!
    SOURCE — link to 4chan.org

  • Andy September 16, 2012, 9:01 PM

    “But rarely in this essay does he address the fact that the most dangerous actors, due to the potential for damage they can inflict, are states themselves.”

    This is not surprising given that the United States Department of State (rather self-servingly) excludes governments from its definition of who is a terrorist. But your point is well-taken: by any objective assessment, governments are by far the world’s biggest terrorists/criminals/whatever.

  • Bob Mann September 18, 2012, 12:18 PM

    Is there a relationship here to the attack on your site? You had mentioned in an earlier post that you would be revealing details of the hack shorty. Is that still forthcoming?

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