Are We Already Losing the Cyber War?

Wouldn't it be great to read on Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, reports that American cyber spies have penetrated the Chinese electric grid and may have left software behind that would allow Washington to plunge the People's Republic into darkness?

Or maybe the Russian press will wring its hands over the loss of terabytes of nuclear secrets, presumably to British or American cyber attackers.

I would be so proud of my country to read those stories. I don't expect to, given the unlikelihood that Chinese or Russian media would ever report such events, or even know they had occurred.

Still, I would like to know that my government is looking out for me. I don't believe in firing the first shot, but think it's stupid not to return fire. I would happy to read a "leak" in the New York Times about how American cyber warriors are taking the fight to our potential rivals and enemies.

This Is War

Clearly, our potential enemies are stealing our secrets and positioning themselves to do God only knows how much damage. Cyber warfare that will either be difficult to detect or easy to blame on an innocent party.

That is what makes cyber warfare more frightening than nukes. A nuclear exchange between the West and either Russia or China is likely to come in massive doses and nobody will win. That has, thank God, been enough to keep it from happening, so far.

Cyber warfare allows the aggressor to do nuclear-scale damage to its target, potentially with no loss of life. And it happens so slowly that the loser does not even notice the gradual shift in power from victim to victor.

In cyber warfare, it is possible to hide your tracks so well that whatever the enemy accomplishes looks like an accident or bug to the victim. Or points to another country as the culprit, potentially leading two hapless nations into conventional warfare while the real perpetrator watches from the sidelines.

There are as many variations of this theme as there are imaginations to dream them up. Some scenarios are more likely, some more fantastic, but each is new and threatening beyond any warfare the world has known before.

There are reports in the news that the Obama administration is about to establish a military "cyber command" to coordinate America's response to Internet warfare. I hope the Pentagon will take the threat at least as seriously as it does the more conventional national security threats we face.

The Threats Are Real

The Pentagon's 2009 Quadrennial Roles and Missions Review (QRM) Report included a section about the "enormous challenges" presented by cyberspace.

"Our national security is inextricably linked to the cyberspace domain, where conflict is not limited by geography or time. The expanding use of cyberspace places United States' interests at greater risk from cyber threats and vulnerabilities."

The study noted that cyber attackers "can operate globally, within our own borders, and within the borders of our allies and adversaries. The complexity and amount of activity in this evolving domain make it difficult to detect, interdict, and attribute malicious activities."

The war is already underway and I am not reassured that our government is doing everything it can, both defensively and offensively, to protect our national security. I am much more concerned about cyber threats than traditional forms of warfare. I only hope the Obama administration shares my fear.

David Coursey would like to think he's paranoid. But, he's quite sure there are people who are out to get us. Follow him on twitter (dcoursey) or send e-mail using the contact form at www.coursey.com/contact.

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