Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mobilizing for the Cyberwars

Any remaining doubts people had regarding the potential seriousness of cyber-terrorism were put to rest last year when it was revealed that spies had hacked into the U.S. power grid and planted software designed to create disruptions. That incident and several others have increased the chatter about the potential for cyberwar.

While addressing this week's Worldwide Cybersecurity Summit, Microsoft's Scott Charney, stated that the threat was, "confusing," and that cyber-threats ought to be differentiated. The four categories he proposed were conventional computer crimes, military espionage, economic espionage and cyberwarfare.

Charney went on to say that, "it appears that neither governments nor industry are well-positioned to respond to this highly complex threat and that, from a policy and tactical perspective, there is considerable paralysis." Charney also spoke of the potential of an electronic Pearl Harbor and the subesquent need for an electronic Geneva Convention to protect the interests of non-combatants.

It's fascinating stuff, and it raises the question of, are we now in some kind of sleeping giant state regarding the threat of cyber-conflict? Similar to the state of the country before WWII or the post-millenial lacksadaisicalness of pre 911? Perhaps we should be preparing for the possibility of conflict by. . . well. . .mobilizing.

This is what you do to prepare for war after all isn't it? It raises the interesting question, how would a nation mobilize for a cyberwar? It seems it would play out as some kind of surreal inversion of mobilizing for actual war.

Instead of factories churning out tanks and planes you'd see computer geaks working round the clock bolting down motherboards and constructing mainframes. Unlike the strapping commandos you'd find in conventional special forces, cyber-commandos would be a much scrappier breed. Gangly, bespectacled nerds with pen protectors in the front pocket of their fatigues, hacking their way in and out silently, likes ghosts in the night.

Rosie the Riveter, icon of homefront in WWII would be replaced by Patty the Programmer, sleeves of her white blouse rolled up with the jacket of her khaki business suit slung cavalierly over the back of her chair. The blackout order wouldn't be because of air raids, but to conserve electricity for the all-important digital war machine.

Its sounds funny, but in truth the casualties in a cyberwar could be quite serious. Beyond the banking system and the power grid, consider how integral computers are to government, medicine, law enforcement, communication and transportation. A well-executed cyber-attack could quite literally bring the country to it's knees.

Charney is not alone in thinking that part of the problem is in the labelling. James Isaak, president of IEEE Computer Society believes, "As soon as you say war, that's a government problem. And if that's not the nature of the problem we're dealing with, that's a disservice."

Indeed. However unlike conventional wars, cyber wars need not be fought between nations. In a cyberwar, one individual could potentially unleash worldwide havoc. And that. . .would be no laughing matter.

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