Governments escalate cyber warfare capabilities

By Tyler Davis

Stuxnet, a malicious computer program now believed to be a collaboration between the U.S. and Israeli governments, accidentally leaked into systems outside its original target, an Iranian nuclear facility, in March 2010. Along with another malware program believed to be part of the same joint government operation, Stuxnet disabled approximately 1,000 Iranian nuclear centrifuges. An analysis released by the security firm Kaspersky Labs on Aug. 29 posits that another program, Wiper, may have been part of the same operation. The Internet has become the new battlefield, and the U.S. plans to dominate it.

Our country is now gearing up for a new age of digital war. The U.S. Air Force issued a request Aug. 22 for concept papers relating to “the employment of cyberspace capabilities to destroy, deny, degrade, disrupt, deceive, corrupt, or usurp the adversary’s ability to use the cyberspace domain for

his advantage.”

According to an Aug. 30 article in the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, cyber warfare programs are up and running in most nations, including many that are unfriendly toward the U.S.

The term cyber warfare may conjure up images of hackers stealing State Department documents or spy ledgers, but more often these attacks are aimed at civilian and commercial targets.

According to a leaked diplomatic cable, an intrusion into Google’s system in January 2010 was likely carried out with support from the Chinese government in retaliation for the company’s refusal to assist in the country’s Internet censorship. Amazon, LinkedIn and Sony have been affected by cyber attacks supposedly carried out by non-governmental actors. Even the attack on the Iranian nuclear facility, while delaying Iran’s supposed ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, was aimed at what is currently a civilian nuclear energy project.

Perhaps cyber-armed nations need to be reminded of what parents tell their kids before they go online: Don’t do anything online you wouldn’t do in real life. Cyber warfare is a dangerous game and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

By involving itself in covert attacks on foreign networks, the U.S. is escalating cyber warfare around the world and possibly provoking attacks on our own digital soil. For instance, the computer security firm F-Secure believes that North Korea and Iran may be working together on developing cyber warfare systems based on a technology treaty the two nations signed in

early September.

While no one from the U.S. or Israeli governments has claimed responsibility for the Stuxnet attack, there has been subtle acknowledgement of the program. A covert cyber operation like this would be consistent with the James Bond-esque defense policy of the last four years. In public, President Barack Obama hopes to avoid war with Iran. On the Internet, we’ve allegedly taken the first shot.

Interference with an American nuclear facility in a manner similar to the Stuxnet attack would be met with public outrage and, most likely, a military response.  “We reserve the right to use all necessary means—diplomatic, informational, military, and economic—as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law,” the government’s International Strategy for Cyberspace stated. Pentagon officials have said they will consider cyber attacks against the U.S. as acts of war. Not surprisingly, our government’s offensive measures in cyberspace are without regard to international law. Interfering with the utilities infrastructure of another country is a violation of sovereignty, just as it would be if done against us. Whether right or wrong, conflict over the Internet should be taken just as seriously as

real-world conflict.

An annual threat assessment released by the U.S. government’s intelligence community said that “emerging technologies are developed and implemented faster than governments can keep pace,” citing attacks on financial targets such as NASDAQ and the International Monetary Fund. Many U.S. targets are highly vulnerable to cyber attacks, especially those in the private sector. The government is not doing enough to protect our financial and energy infrastructures from attack, while simultaneously provoking attacks through its covert

cyberspace activity.

As warfare becomes more complicated, the American public needs to start asking tough questions about whom their government has in its crosshairs and the means it is using. Considering the escalating rise of cyber warfare, our government has been suspiciously quiet about the Pentagon’s activities on the Internet, both offensive and defensive.

Using the Internet to attack foreign infrastructures could destabilize international relations and escalate conflict. As the Facebook generation knows, what happens on the Internet doesn’t always stay on

the Internet.