The 21st Century Face Of (Cyber) WAR



Rumors of War, it has almost a poetic ring to it. It’s a lot less poetic for those individuals who are caught in the war zone. Still, since the beginning of the history of war, which is also the beginning of the history of humanity, the horror of war is preceded by… something else.  This herald of war has changed it’s through the years, but it always has a definite face. More importantly, the heralds of war are an important  part of the war. By spreading fear and uncertainty before the itself arrives, further damage can be done. Today, the rumors of war include a cyber-attack. With every new international conflict, computer and Internet, attacks are becoming more central to each war, and may eventually become the entire war. As the US announces its plans to retaliate against Syria for using chemical attacks in its own war, the New York Times and  Twitter were attacked by “The Syrian Hacker Army.”  

War is not just about destruction, fear and panic matter as well. The heralds of war are designed to match the fears of the time, and spread panic. In ancient Greece, the first sign of war was a cloud of dust off in the distance and small squads of armed men ripping up grape vines and tearing down olive trees. This wasn’t mere spitefulness. While citizens fled to the relative safety of their walled city, the wealth of Greece lay in the fields outside of the city. Even if not a single citizen died, knowing that your family farm, just behind the next hill, was enough to dispirit citizens. Romans chose to take a direct road to the city, without side trips to your fields. War was now a massive army slowly dragging along the siege machines needed to dismantle your city’s defenses. It left plenty of time for local messengers to run ahead of the army and warn other villages and cities. Rumors of war now evolved into messages of war.

In more modern times, where we have mass media, the stories of impending war became a central part of the war. In World War II, we learned the term “Propaganda.” Germany became a master of the propaganda war, a separate and parallel war that started before the “shooting war,” but continued to run even after the enemy surrendered. If mass media and communication defined the 20th century,  computers and the Internet define the first decades of the 21st century. Now we can look towards our computers and web sites to find the rumors of war. Not just the endless stories about a coming war, but the signs that it is already underway.  

According to Richard A. Clarke, the author of “Cyber War,” tells us that since 1995, the US has been training soldiers to fight cyber-wars. In 2007, we launched our first combined cyber/physical attack during the Iraqi war, using cyber-attacks to silently shut down all military radar in Syria, so that  Israel could send in fighters to level a building, that may have been part of a nuclear weapons program. In the same year, Russia (unofficially) launched an attack against a former client state over, of all things, the relocation of a statue. The statue was a World War II memorial from Estonia to the people of Russia. Dismantling anything involving the pride of Russia has enormous political implications for their current government. Russia crippled Estonia’s entire Internet infrastructure, and after three days Estonia unconditionally surrendered (sort of to Russia, not exactly, since Russia never admitted to the attack.) After their “sort of surrender,” the Internet went back on line. Since then, when the US starts to talk about war or military retaliation (sometimes just economic retaliation) we have a rise in attacks, often from the country we contemplate attacking.

Now that the US is talking about military strikes against Syria, we have an attack on two (so far) major US institutions. By recent cyber-attack standards, this is a very small attack indeed. But Syria is not known for its cyber-capabilities. Even so, only a hand full of countries in the world have the military capability to reach out and attack physical targets in the US. Yet, just about ANY country has the ability to launch some sort of effective cyber-attack. Ironically, for 90% of the countries in the world, we cannot return this attack. It’s not that we lack the capability, the problem is that few of the countries that are likely to attack the US have enough infrastructure on the Internet to make a meaningful target. That’s why, in today’s world of asymmetrical warfare, the US is particularly vulnerable to cyber-attacks. With a higher threshold for a shooting war, many cyber-attacks may not result in retaliation (at least not that we will hear about).  

The new herald of war looks very much like a sign on your favorite web-site saying, “The liberation army of Cyberia has crashed your website, and it will remain down until our Bitcoin ransom is paid!”  In ancient days, the first soldiers to appear were often mercenaries, and today the first cyber-attacks may come from “unofficial” groups, or could even be launched (or re-directed through) other countries. The face of war sometimes looks like the face of corporate competition, a frequent reason for cyber-attacks and spying from China. War is always a messy business, and that one of the reasons why we should try every possible alternative before we escalate to war. But the new heralds of war are too easy to employ, and may be more than just an “additive” to make war more unpleasant. The ease of using cyber-attacks may be the fuse that turns a loud debate into a shooting war.

And where does that leave the rest of us? Businesses need to realize that they are the front line for attacks, because government offices usually have better defenses. If you work in a big, well known firm, your visibility may be enough put you on the front line of the next cyber war. How well defended are you? Do you use at least two ISPs, in case one is under attack? If you are using cloud services, have you really investigated the vulnerabilities of your vendors?  In cyber wars, the protection of the walled city has been replaced by the firewalled corporation. The entire world is waiting just outside your firewall to start their attacks… make sure you’re ready!

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