An Objective View of World Cyber Warfare

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cyber-war-guys

Julian Assange, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – destined to be key players in the first world cyberwar? Composite: Geoff Caddick/Jim Watson/Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

“THE GUARDIAN” by Martin Belam

“We are definitely living through something global in scope.

Cyberwarfare is clearly a front where nation states will try to gain advantage over each other and make plans for attack and defence. But, like espionage, it is a murky world where it is hard for outsiders to get an exact grasp on what is being done. Nation states seldom openly claim credit for hacking.

The job of the historian is often to pull together broad themes and trends, then give them a snappy title that people will easily recognise and understand. That’s how we end up with labels like “The decline and fall of the Roman Empire” or “The Rise of Hitler and the Third Reich”.

As someone who studied history, I’ve had this lingering curiosity about how historians of the future will view our times. It is easy to imagine textbooks in a hundred years with chapters that start with Reagan and Thatcher and end with the global financial crisis and called something like The Western Neoliberal Consensus 1979-2008.

But contemporaries seldom refer to events with these names, or can see the sharp lines that the future will draw. It wouldn’t have seemed obvious with the capture of Calais in 1347 that this decisive siege was just one early development in a dynastic struggle that would come to be known as the hundred years war.

This always makes me wonder what broader patterns we might be missing in our own lives, and I’ve come round to thinking that we might already be living through the first world cyberwar – it’s just that we haven’t acknowledged or named it yet.

What might a timeline of that war look like to a future historian? Well, 2007 seems like a good bet as a starting point – with a concerted series of cyber-attacks on Estonia. These were particularly effective, because the Baltic state has pushed so much of its public life online. The attacks were generally regarded to have come from Russia with state approval. That’s just one reason why I suspect cyberwarfare will provoke endless debates among historians.

Cyberwarfare is clearly a front where nation states will try to gain advantage over each other and make plans for attack and defence. But, like espionage, it is a murky world where it is hard for outsiders to get an exact grasp on what is being done. Nation states seldom openly claim credit for hacking.

In 2008 there were events that a historian might weave into a narrative of a global cyberwar, when several underwater internet cables were cut during the course of the year, interrupting internet communication and particularly affecting the Middle East. Some have argued these were accidents caused by ships dragging their anchors, but they mostly remain unsolved mysteries, with the suspicion that only state actors would have the required equipment and knowledge to target the cables. Of course, it might have just been sharks.

In 2010 the Stuxnet worm was used to attack Iran’s nuclear program. Carried on Microsoft Windows machines, and specifically targeting software from Siemens, Stuxnet was reported to have successfully damaged the fast-spinning centrifuges used to develop nuclear material in Iran. Analysts at the time thought the computer virus so sophisticated that it must have been developed with state support – with fingers frequently pointed at the US and/or the Israelis.

Another event from 2010, the WikiLeaks American embassy cables release, which the Guardian participated in the publication of, would be irresistible for a historian to refer to in this context. It is also one of the things that makes the first world cyberwar different from conventional warfare – the mix of nation states being involved with pressure groups, whistleblowers and hackers. As well as the state apparatus, a history of this period of electronic warfare would have to name Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Anonymous and the Syrian Electronic Army as key players.

North Korea has been suspected of hacking as a way to achieve diplomatic goals. The FBI publicly accused it of hacking Sony Pictures in 2014, exposing confidential company information. It was a hack of a Japanese company, targeted by an Asian state, with the aim of pressuring the US arm of the company over a movie.

Along the way there have been other equally odd quirks of war – the infected USB keys distributed at a US military base in 2008, or the curious laptop theft at a facility in Scotland that had recently received an official Chinese delegation.

The one that historians will be unable to ignore though is the 2016 US election campaign being influenced by alleged hacked and leaked emails – and the open speculation there was an attempt to hack into election counting machines by a foreign power. It might be unprecedented, but it isn’t going to go away. Yesterday Obama announced retaliation from the US and Germany is already braced for interference in its 2017 elections.

What reason is there to suppose that these events might eventually be grouped together as a single world cyberwar by historians? Well, for me, it is the idea that hostilities might formally come to an end.

You can envisage a scenario where Russia, China and the US can see a mutual benefit in de-escalating cyber-attacks between the three of them, and also begin to collectively worry about cyberwarfare capabilities being developed in a range of smaller nation states. Cue a UN summit about cyberwarfare, and the development of some code of conduct, or an anti-cyberwarfare treaty that provides historians with a neat endpoint.

It isn’t, of course, that nation states would stop electronic surveillance or building up hacking capabilities, but as with most wars that don’t deliver a decisive victory, eventually they become too expensive and too disruptive to maintain.

It is important to remember that the internet originally came from defence research, designed to provide communications capabilities in the event of a nuclear attack. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a hundred years it is the military purpose that historians mainly remember it for, and that we are living through the first time it is being used in anger.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/30/first-world-cyberwar-historians

Martin Belam is Social & New Formats Editor for the Guardian in London. He helped set up UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d for the Daily Mirror, has worked at Sony and the BBC, and was previously Lead User Experience Architect at the Guardian. He is on Twitter as @MartinBelam

 

 

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