Modern Times: WAR.com

You might not have realised it, but the world is at war. Not a war of tanks and guns, but one of espionage and government-sponsored, carefully buried paper trails. From computer viruses targeting Iran's nuclear sites, to cyber attacks against the banking systems of entire nations, Corin Faife examines, in this week's Modern Times column, a crackling, effervescent yet invisible frontline.

Columns, Modern Times, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, October 5, 2010 5:14 - 1 Comment

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By Corin Faife

You might not have realised it, but the world is at war. Not a war being fought by clashing power blocks armed with tanks and guns, but, as with the Cold War which spanned almost half of the last century, a war fought indirectly through espionage, government sponsorship and other activities with carefully buried paper trails. It’s a war which is taking place in a far-removed zone and on your front doorstep simultaneously, and of which the effects are mostly clandestine, hidden from the public eye and denied by both perpetrator and victim.

The war is being fought in cyberspace, and it has already begun.

Over the past weeks, the possibility of cyber war has been brought again to the world’s attention, thanks to the release of a slew of new technical details relating to the Stuxnet worm. The virus was first identified in June, but such is its complexity that it has taken security experts at top anti-virus firms months to reverse engineer it. The publishing of a white paper by top online security firm Symantec has provided more details and fuelled speculation about the worm’s origin and purpose, but what has surprised many in the online security community is the fact that it is the first example of a malware programme aimed exclusively at creating real-world consequences, speculated (though not proved) to be a system malfunction in an Iranian nuclear plant.

The discovery of the Stuxnet programme is a singular event, but behind the story is the unavoidable reality that cyber attacks are an ever more common arm in the arsenal of the major military powers, and are being deployed more often than we might think. Where the media reports clashes of military troops or hardware no matter how small, software attacks usually fail to make headlines unless their nature is extraordinary or the extent of infection widespread; yet experts within the industry confirm that for years now, the computer systems of companies that play a critical role in the UK infrastructure have been coming under attack from online threats.

In mainland Europe, Germany has also stated that its industrial sector has been subject to numerous highly sophisticated attacks from Russia and China, and the Pentagon, along with disclosing its $100 million dollar bill for response to cyber attacks, says that its computer networks are probed or scanned by outsiders millions of times each day.

The use of cyber attacks by nation-states is growing due to its many attractive features. Firstly, though in most cases the provenance of such an attack is as good as known, proving it is near impossible; there is seldom any sign of a smoking gun, as governments are able to fund hacking groups indirectly through the use of any number of intermediaries and proxy organisations (once again inviting comparisons with the Cold War).

Secondly, the intellectual resources needed to conduct such attacks are tilting into a configuration much more favourable to recently developed nations, many of which are in no position to compete with the military might of the traditional powers: as a prime example, Iran boasts a powerful ‘cyber army’ which, though likely a distributed and non-professional group, is reported to be operating under the aegis of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. And thirdly, the investment needed versus potential damage caused is far lower than with other more conventional weapons.

Over and above covert attacks in ‘peacetime’, cyber warfare would undoubtedly now be a large component of any hot war waged between industrialised nations, as the ability to cripple infrastructure such as power and communications networks before a ground or air assault could strike a decisive blow without a single shot being fired. Prospective targets needn’t be exclusively military either, as the large-scale attack on Estonia in 2007 demonstrated, when the disabling of a few key banking websites left swathes of the population without access to their money.

As we turn over more of our lives to automated processes, such vulnerabilities seep in as an often unforeseen consequence. Along with the steady process of entrenchment into our lives, the Internet has opened itself up a new front in warfare, and the battles that will be fought there are of a kind that we’re only just beginning to envisage; as the 21st Century progresses, cyber war is likely to become a phrase we will hear more often, and unfortunately, switching your computer off is unlikely to provide much of a shield from it.

Corin Faife is a writer and activist. His ‘Modern Times’ column appears every Tuesday.

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Ceasefire Magazine – This week in Ceasefire
Oct 11, 2010 6:52

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