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SOVEREIGN MAN

The blowback and collateral damage of cyber-warfare

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We are living in a digital age and with that luxury also comes new dangers. Groups like WikiLeaks and Anonymous have harnessed the internet to promote free speech and their political agenda while countries like Israel and the United States are utilizing hacking to engage in cyber-attacks. With President Obama recently bragging that the US had a hand in Stuxnet, concerns are growing over the potential blowback, collateral damage and future of cyber-warfare. The Asia Times explains:

There’s a reason it’s called the Defense Department and not the War Office. Listen to Washington and you’d think the United States was simply a healthy body under attack by a legion of foreign microbes in league with traitorous parasites within. But several major news stories over the past week paint a very different picture of the US government approach to cyber-war. It turns out that our hands are not clean at all.

The Barack Obama administration indirectly confirmed last week, through a leak in The New York Times, that it had teamed up with Israel to create Stuxnet, the worm that burrowed into Iran’s nuclear program and created havoc in its uranium-enrichment centrifuges.

The search engine Shodan shows all the different computers you can access online. “One researcher using the system,” according to a recent Washington Post story, “found that a nuclear particle accelerator at the University of California at Berkeley was linked to the Internet with virtually no security.”

All’s fair in love and war, you might say. But we ramp up our e-offensive at no inconsiderable risk to ourselves. Our cyber-attacks, as with any offensive strategy, can provoke retaliation. Sanger concludes his Stuxnet investigation with a cautionary note: “It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before [the United States] becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.”

Also, if we attack infrastructure, civilians are at heightened risk. Knocking out centrifuges is one thing. But cyber-warriors could just as easily target the entire electricity grid. “You could argue that out of the gate cyber-war is going to be war crimes,” says Marcus Ranum of Tenable Network Security.

“If you’re talking taking out an electronic infrastructure preparatory to a ground attack, you’re talking about shutting down their hospitals and shutting down their businesses, shutting down their stock exchange, shutting down their street lights, and screwing people’s lives up. These are all contrary to the civilized laws of how wars are supposed to be fought.”

And, finally, the most frightening possibility is the worm that goes out of control. Stuxnet did some damage outside Iran but it was relatively tame as malware goes. But more serious stuff is now out there – see, for example, Flame – and who knows what’s in the pipeline that could, like a cyber-smallpox, cause a major e-pandemic?

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