Frank Babb

Author & Adventurer

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Cyberwar: What Does it Mean and What Could It Bring?

“40 Million Cards, Swiped” was the headline in the New York Times announcing the theft from Target of 40 million customers’ credit card purchase records.  The article continued with the reminder these hackers were relatively small timers compared with the theft in 2007 of 90 million card records from T. J. Maxx and 130 million in 2009 from the card processor Heartland Payment Systems. Like many other U. S. Target store customers from November 27 through December 15, I’m checking each morning the online account of the credit card we use to see if an uninvited guest has appropriated some of our credit.

A few days earlier a friend, who like me is interested in national security issues, had reminded me of a review in the April 2012 issue of Smithsonian magazine of Richard Clarke and Robert Knake’s book Cyber War. Clarke has worked in security and counterterrorism offices under Presidents Reagan, Bush I, Bush II, and Clinton who appointed him National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counterterrorism. Knake was an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and has a master’s degree in international security studies from Harvard. Their book reviewers think they know what they’re talking about.

“The book’s central argument,” the Smithsonian says, “is that, while the United States has developed the capability to conduct an offensive cyberwar, we have virtually no defense against cyber attacks that he [Clarke] says are targeting us now, and will be in the future.” In September 2001 Clarke warned the Bush II White House that Al Qaeda was planning to attack the U. S.; he was ignored with the consequences we all learned of on September 11.

Clarke discusses the reality of cyberwar. In 2007 Israel disabled Syrian antiaircraft weapons before they attacked a Syrian nuclear weapons plant, and in 2008 the Russians immobilized Georgian government computers in advance of its attack on that country. (My wife and I were on a ship in the Black Sea at that time and can attest there was no internet access for 24-hours.) In 2009 North Korea disrupted U. S. and South Korean government computers after its nuclear missile test launch. Clarke discusses in detail the famous cyberworm, Stuxnet, that the U. S. (according to Clarke) used in 2010 to take over and crash the Iranian gas centrifuges separating nuclear bomb-grade uranium-235 isotopes from U-238 isotopes, thus interrupting Iran’s weapon development.

Many American companies in the defense, technology, and medical industries have suffered attacks and probable theft of their intellectual property from the Chinese and other foreign countries. Clarke and recent disclosures confirm that the U. S. has been active in hacking for military and diplomatic purposes at least.

So, in this pervasive environment of private and governmental hacking, why isn’t our government working at emergency speed (and Clarke thinks it is an emergency) to develop the technology to thwart this threat? Maybe more dollars from our F-35 and naval shipbuilding and the hundreds of military bases we maintain around the world should be diverted for this purpose. Clarke talks about the Armageddon effect on our nation and military operations of a massive shutdown of the systems in our banking, utilities, telecommunication, and governmental institutions. Without these systems our F-35’s and other aircraft won’t fly and our Navy vessels won’t know what to shoot at. These are questions I think we should be asking our Congresspersons and President. Our defense budget is about more than protecting jobs in the military equipment industry.



4 Responses to Cyberwar: What Does it Mean and What Could It Bring?

  • howard crise says:

    It means the end of the world as we know it—just another nail in our coffin.

    It’s always darkest just before the dawn.

  • marge hilts says:

    Eisenhower warned of the “military-industrial complex” When the nation is led (sub rosa) by military paranoia, the result is a surfeit of battleships, planes and army bases t
    o protect against ostensible attacks, ignoring the reality of cyber attacks.

  • Brad Beach says:

    Interestingly,DoD’s Cyber Command was established in 2009 to address growing cyber threats from state, non-state, and criminal actors. The importance of Cyber Command’s mission is underscored by its structure. It is a subordinate unified command under US Strategic Command – a command relationship used by US Forces Korea and, until 2011, US Forces Iraq. It is led by a 4-Star General with authority equal to the Combatant Commanders. This means direct access to POTUS via SECDEF.

    Cyber Command’s mission is one of the few areas in the military receiving additional funding despite over 1 trillion in defense spending cuts over the next 10 years. Brian Chung’s article in last week’s Washington Post outlined Cyber Command’s budget double from 200 million in 2013 to 447 million in 2014.

    I believe the majority of Americans understand very little about this new form of warfare. It is a war being fought with algorithms analyzing big data to discover attacks from multiple fronts. It is has the highest level of secrecy because of the political, diplomatic, economic and military implications. It is also classified due to the incredible intellectual and monetary capital expended to develop the techniques required to overcome our adversaries. While a room full of computers operated by 18-20 year old hackers exercising the National Command Authority does not elicit the same patriotism as a $5 billion aircraft carrier in the Straits of Hormuz, I would argue the cyber mission in today’s environment is equally important. Culturally, we easily identify with tangible examples of American power such as our ships, planes, military personnel, and bases. What is more difficult to comprehend is complex computer code requiring the best efforts of our most talented mathematicians and scientists.

    Today’s Pew poll indicated 57% of Americans ages 18-29 believe Edward Snowden’s actions served the public interest. I wonder the response if they knew of Snowden’s impact to our cyber warfare capability was the equivalent of losing an aircraft carrier or several squadrons of aircraft?

    • Frank Babb says:

      Thanks for the comment, Brad, and the information about the Cyber Command. We live in dangerous times (perhaps, I should say we’ve always lived in dangerous times). I think the people of this country are entitled to a rational, public discussion of the costs we’re prepared to incur in dealing with the threats we face. Perhaps we’ll decide that the loss of an aircraft carrier or several squadrons of aircraft, lamentable as it may be, is a small price to pay for our constitutional rights.

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