Taking War Into Cyber Space

There is a war a brewing and most people don’t even realize it. Underneath our pleasant, everyday reality rages a war — a war in which an attack can come at anytime from anywhere. It is a war with no obvious enemy and no clear-cut boundaries. It is taking place on a battlefield wholly dissimilar from the jungles of South America or even the deserts of the Middle East — as a matter of fact, it isn’t even taking place on Earth. It is a war fought in space — cyber space, that is. Cyber warfare is a real and persistent threat and might soon prove to be the proverbial “atomic bomb” of the Digital Age.

Cyber attacks come in many forms, but they are essentially the illegal use of networks to either obtain data or crash systems. Spam and junk mail could be construed as a form of cyber attack. They are the most common, yet fairly innocuous form — Nigeria is not the cyber-terrorist capital of the world, however. E-mail spam generally leads to far more dangerous types of viruses and worms that can severely slow down computers or even steal sensitive data.

More recently, there’s a breed of digital bug that is just downright malicious; these can affect the physical components of the PC; forcing hard drives to spin at faster rates until they burn out or overclock processors until meltdown.

The average computer is susceptible to all of these attacks. But imagine that the US utilities grid and defense network are vulnerable as well and then the danger becomes more clear. Cyber espionage, web vandalism, distributed denial-of-service, equipment disruption and critical infrastructure attack are all forms of cyber attack that pose a serious threat to national security — a little more dangerous than the average spambot.

Data is the currency of this digital war, and he who holds the data wins. The information gathering techniques of the Cold War pale in comparison to those of today. Intelligence could be obtained from anywhere in the world provided that hackers have the proper equipment. In much the same vein, an attack on a country’s infrastructure can similarly be staged without sending a single soldier abroad. Imagine if our financial markets or the New York Stock Exchange became a game of number munchers for hackers, throwing our economy into chaos — doubtless a much more effective way of undermining a country’s order and stability than a terrorist attack. If utilities such as water, electricity and gas were taken offline, all hell would break loose.

This may sound like the plot of “Live Free and Die Hard,” but there have been precedents. “Moonlight Maze” and “Titan Rain” were the code names given to a series of attacks that occurred against the US in 1999 and 2003 respectively. The attacks were believed to be of Russian and Chinese origin, but this is not 100% certain — such is the nature of a cyber attack.

A cyber war isn’t fought with basement-dwelling hackers; these are state-sponsored attacks on country-wide infrastructure. The Eastern European country of Estonia should be well acquainted with the phenomenon since they underwent a cyber attack in 2007. Estonian institutions, including parliament, banks, government ministries and the media were crashed through denial-of-service attacks leading to a massive breakdown in national productivity and communications. During the 2008 South Ossetia War, Georgian and Azerbaijani sites were similarly disabled. More recently however, in July 2009, groups as diverse as the US and South Korean major governments, media and financial websites suffered a cyber attack. According to the RAND Corporation, the US suffers nearly a few to several hundred billions of dollars of damage each year — that is no small amount of money.

But, is that to say that cyber warfare is a bad thing? If battles staged in digital space become the norm, it would become a fortuitous turn of events for our short human history. Humans are a species marked by cycles of self-destruction. Conflict is inevitable, but if it can be fought and mediated through digital technologies, this would warrant a more serious look at the implications of digitizing our self-defense. We could break the cycle of war, or at the very least replace it with a digital imitation. Some see the advancement of technology as a bad thing. They believe that our over-reliance on technology might one day be responsible for our own destruction. This is pessimistic view. It doesn’t have to be that way.

People need to be more vigilant about the technology we use everyday. Cyber defense will only become more important as time wears on. We ask the government to protect us from external threats in real-life; it is equally as important then that we ask them to protect us from external threats in the digital space. We shouldn’t balk then, at the money we pour into digital self-defense, given the threat posed by technologically advancing nations. We should all embrace digital technology as much as possible, but we need to be aware of all the good and bad things it brings along with it.

Thanh Le is a fourth-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at tle6@uci.edu.