Will World War III Be a cyber-war?

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Wednesday, 16 February, 2000, 14:01 GMT When states go to cyber-war

Digital weapons could change the face of warfare

By BBC News Online's Joe Havely

... London 2015: Welcome netizen! You are accessing this on Gatesweb, one of the few networks to have survived the First World Web War.

Planet Earth is still reeling from its experience of the ultimate in stealth warfare - no bombs, no bullets, no bangs; just chaos and the total breakdown of society.

In this war, the battlefield was everywhere and nowhere; a conflict fought by invisible warriors moving silently to bring about their digital Armageddon.

Public utilities have ground to a halt; the banking system has imploded; transportation systems are in terminal gridlock; telecoms are all but useless...

Futuristic fantasy? Not necessarily - cyber-warfare is fast becoming a fact of military life.

The kind of disruption once possible only with a battery of intercontinental missiles now seems achievable at the click of a mouse.

Cyber-wars might not directly spill blood, but in the information age stemming the flow of data using so-called "weapons of mass disruption" can be as effective a way of bringing a country to its knees as bombing its oil refineries.

Sitting target

As our wired world becomes more reliant on technology for its prosperity and security, so it becomes increasingly vulnerable.

Thomas Siebel, chief executive of Siebel Systems, a provider of e-business software, says recent examples of prominent websites being shut down by young and relatively amateur hackers show how exposed the system is.

"If you want to shut down the free world", he says, "the way you would do it is not to send missiles over the Atlantic Ocean - you shut down their information systems and the free world will come to a screeching halt.

"If a college kid can do it, imagine what Libya and red China can do."

In geostrategic terms, the US is still very much the uncontested superpower based on its arsenal of conventional weapons. But on the electronic front, the field is much more fluid and the internet could prove to be the great leveller.

Arms cache

Unsurprisingly, the US is thought to hold one of the most sophisticated and top secret stores of so-called cyber-bombs.

But that by no means gives it a monopoly.

In capable hands, a powerful computer hooked up to the web has the potential to be a relatively cheap, fast and effective tool of war.

During the Kosovo war, US officials are reported to have decided against deploying their electronic arsenal because of fears that the impact on civilian life would have led to charges of war crimes under the Geneva Convention.

The revelation highlighted a growing debate over the impact of these weapons on the nature of warfare and legitimate targets.

Late last year, Russian diplomats warned that the uncontrolled development of cyber-warfare applications "might lead to an escalation of the arms race".

There is also the genie-in-the-bottle syndrome to think about.

Once a cyber-attack has been unleashed, who's to say that in the interconnected world your carefully constructed virus won't spread to the networks of friendly or neutral nations?

The art of war

Intelligence analysts say one of the first concerted cyber-attacks occurred in Sri Lanka in 1997 in support of the Tamil Tiger separatists.

Sophisticated more in terms of organisation than technology, the strike was intended to disrupt government communications by overloading - i.e. spamming - Sri Lankan embassies with millions of e-mails.

A year later, the Indian army's website on Kashmir was "hijacked" by supporters of Pakistan's claim to the disputed territory, who plastered the site with their own political slogans.

In Burma, the military government is believed to have built up an advanced cyber-warfare department within its own secret police force.

Using monitoring equipment loaned by the government of Singapore, analysts say the junta has been able to track online critics of the regime. A growing number of exiled activists say they have received viruses attached to e-mails later found to have been sent by Burmese agents.

And during the East Timorese crisis last year, independence leader Jose Ramos Horta threatened to unleash a series of viruses against Indonesia's banking sector if the government tried to rig the territory's referendum.

But military officials say these are just tips of the electronic iceberg.

Hack attack

According to US Government reports, at least 120 groups or countries are developing information-warfare systems, most of them using the net as their means of attack.

Already the US Defence Department is engaged in an ongoing war to protect its communications network.

Backed by a $1.4bn presidential budget, the Pentagon announced last October that it was consolidating offensive and defensive cyber-warfare programs under the authority of the US Space Command in Colorado Springs.

It says hackers try to penetrate its systems between 60 and 80 times a day, but analysts believe the real figures are likely to be much higher.

Most hackers gain access through so-called "back-doors" - a kind of electronic loophole which only tends to become apparent after the intruder has made their presence felt and left.

Once you've been infiltrated, you then have to trace who attacked you - a task complicated by the array of electronic "screens" available to hackers to mask their locations.

By then, of course, it could already be too late - a fact that is causing senior White House officials to contemplate the possibility of an "electronic Pearl Harbor".

Maybe the first shots of the global cyber-war have already been fired. Trouble is, if and when the war starts for real, you won't see it until it's too late.

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News and analysis

See also:

10 Jan 00 | Asia-Pacific

Taiwan's computer virus arsenal

24 Mar 99 | Sci/Tech

'Trojan horse' program steals passwords

24 Oct 98 | Sci/Tech

Net warfare over Kosovo

06 Jul 99 | South Asia

Indian army Website ambushed

24 Oct 98 | Monitoring

Cyberwarfare breaks out on internet

19 Aug 98 | Sci/Tech

Chinese protesters attack Indonesia through Net

11 Aug 98 | Sci/Tech

Malaysia arrests Net newsgroup suspects

Internet links:

Federation of American Scientists: Information Warfare and Information Security on the Web

The Terrorism Research Centre: Information warfare

Institute for the Advanced Study of Information Warfare

Rand Research Review: Information War and Cyberspace Security

The American Civil Defence Association: Cyber Warfare Library

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to other Sci/Tech stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to other Sci/Tech stories

-- Helium (HeliumAvid@yahoo.com), February 16, 2000


What war? I thought we were all supposed to be one big, happy, no borders, no flags family?

-- JB (noway@jose.com), February 16, 2000.

Public utilities have ground to a halt; the banking system has imploded; transportation systems are in terminal gridlock; telecoms are all but useless...

And then, the real war begins....

-- Y2kObserver (Y2kObserver@nowhere.com), February 16, 2000.

While our retarded Boneheads(with full support of the Corporate Criminal)keep designing and building "Weapons of Mass Murder and Destruction",the "Enemies"that "we" create,with the Help of these Sub-Humans,have figured out where our "Archilles Heel"lies.A better Understanding of other People,immediate Change in Foreign Policy,reevaluating our "close"Friends,and not bombing people because they do not agree with us,would save us a Lot of upcoming Grief.

-- Negotiate not Bomb (peace@once.again), February 17, 2000.

For a period spanning months, ending (I believe) sometime last Summer, a very sophisticated series of probes and attacks went on against sites ranging from .mil through .com. The code name assigned to that episode may have been something like Midnight Run.

Conjecture that I remember seeing was that those attacks could have been from somewhere east of Europe. Don't know if that was ever more than conjecture.

What I remember were stories and ancedotal stories to the effect that some very qualified military installations were watching this all happen, and found themselves almost powerless to identify the attacks until penetration had already occurred.

The vulnerability in this U.S. bubble.com economy from my perspective is confidence. If consumers begin to lose that, they can be exected to start doing things that will really, really exacerbate the damage. Remember how paranoid the banking system was about y2k withdrawls?

To attack that confidence, it would seem that one would have to go after the largest flows of money, for example.

One such target would be interbank transfer networks. Take that down, and Wall Street has a wee problem, credit card purchases don't work for long, your checks bounce, your bills don't get paid and you don't get paid -- you see the picture emerging.

Another such target might be our huge exposure to foreign holdings of our gov't debt instruments. China has already publically said that it intends to replace it's dollar currency holdings with Euro's.

Scenario's such as these do not have to have devastating outcomes. Leverage can be applied in many ways. Imagine a group of countries in the Winter (for example, western Europe) with, let's say, 30% less natural gas and heating oil better than twice as expensive as last year. As is almost the case right now. Now, do something creative to rattle their financial markets.

As far as negotiate not bomb -- sometimes that just does not work, not in the real world outside academia. Nevil Chamberlain is one of the many in history who thought it did.

-- redeye in ohio (cannot@work.com), February 17, 2000.

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