There’s a lot of stuff out there about cyberwar being unlikely and I’ve always thought the whole thing was basically scareware. I agree with Ian Brown that trying to use cyber to do typical war things like killing people and setting things on fire etc… seems unlikely. But I was at a conference on cyberwar last week and it got me thinking along a different track…
Killing and maiming usually isn’t the ultimate objective of a war. Killing, maiming are a means to gain political and economic control and to steal the assets of a country. You want their resources, you want their people to follow your ideology or crackpot religion, you want more room for your people to live, more food for them to eat, more fuel to run toys like cars and planes with. Oh and you want your people to have more babies than them.
You can do all those things without tanks, planes and flame throwers and it gets easier the more a country moves its assets and control structures into cyberspace. Just consider the following possibilities:
- Steal intellectual property from corporations and universities (we’re an knowledge economy, right).
- Compromise border control systems (electronic passports, identity cards etc…)
- Falsify digital evidence (cover up your crimes)
- Steal money wholesale (e.g. from credit card readers)
- Devalue a currency
- Compromise a nation’s banking system (steal money, stop money transfers, inflate the currency)
- Compromise the integrity of a nation’s stock exchange so trading has to stop, or worse people can’t even prove which shares they own.
- Shut down the power supply, telephones, internet and water system without lifting a finger.
- Organise flash political revolts and bring down the government of a country.
- Control media to gain grass-roots support for your own political control structure.
Some of these are less likely than others. Some of them are already happening. But they’re all possible with enough resources – e.g. by putting systematic backdoors in hardware (chips etc…) which is sold to another nation state, insiders in software corporations etc… It would require a lot of resources, but here’s the key point – when does it become easier to achieve your ultimate objectives using cyber-methods than by going in with robot droids, patriot missiles etc…? Traditional warfare is vastly expensive in terms of money, human lives and energy.