It’s been 20 years since I first acquired a computer and joined the internet. For the most part it has been a great experience. But lately the cyber world has left me with a sense of dread, with a fear that it’s about to crash and burn, especially since governments are now waging wars on the internet.
This week The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both carried lead articles reporting that their web sites, editors and reporters had been hacked by Chinese government, its agencies or by individuals under their control seeking to control the free flow of information.
Last October, US Secretary of Defense Panetta warned that America was facing a “cyber-Pearl Harbor” that would destroy its communications systems, power grids, financial networks, all facets of government, from military defense networks to emergency responders. The threat is real, the warning timely.
Before that first computer I made do with word processors, touch tone telephones, faxes, all sorts of primitive devices. As time went by I came to rely more and more on my computer and the internet. I acquired an e-mail address and the ability to communicate worldwide at almost no cost. My fax machine lies dormant while I scan and e mail documents. I pay my bills, buy stuff and do legal research on line.
But I am small potatoes, antediluvian. Computers and the internet advance at amazing speed. I can’t begin to list all of the things that computers and the internet do, here in the United States and worldwide. Computers build cars for General Motors and Honda; control oil production in the Gulf of Mexico and Saudi Arabia; they monitor stocks on Wall Street, as well those on Tokyo’s Nikkei; they run nuclear facilities in Japan as well as Iran’s atomic enriching efforts, more on that later.
Panetta got it right when he noted that “[a]n aggressor nation or extremist group could use these … cyber tools to gain control of critical switches. They could derail passenger trains… loaded with lethal chemicals. They could contaminate water supply … or shut down the power grid…” He also was spot on in warning that we “won’t succeed in preventing a cyber attack through improved defenses alone”.
Cyber wars have arrived; they are not just hypothetical war games. In 2006 President Bush authorized the use of sophisticated cyberweapons to attack Iran’s nuclear program computer systems. This program, Olympic Games, was continued by President Obama. The cyber weapon, a “worm” dubbed Stuxnet, was a joint U.S Israeli effort. Initially successful, in 2010 the “worm” had “broken free, like a zoo animal that [had] found the keys to the cage” and once having escaped, began to infect computers worldwide.
This was not an isolated incident. In January, 2012 the US publicly accused China “of systematically stealing American high tech data.” That same month saw the end of Operation Aurora, another Chinese attack. In August, Aramco, Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, was attacked and “made useless more than 30,000 computers”. In September, massive denial of services [“DoS”] attacks froze the operations of major United States financial institutions. There were other criminal and malicious cyber-attacks but without state participation.
The mind set of governments in the cyber wars of today is: “If you screw with us and our computers, we are free to screw with yours and just plain screw you”.
Panetta’s solution, calling for enhanced defense capabilities and enabling legislation, while proper is downright shortsighted and stupid. He is correct that cyber security must be pursued. But that solution should be directed at the rogues, the terrorists, the criminals, the non-state actors, not sovereign states.
Without reaching a consensus by the international community for an across the board moratorium of state sponsored cyber wars, the world will spiral into another cold war with each state enhancing its cyber defenses while maximizing offensive capabilities.
Each government will use its offensive capability to further its objective of the day, say the destruction of Iran’s nuclear effort, justifying the action with a cry of “Gott mit Unz”, God is on our side, we are the good guys. That is until their ox is gored by someone else’s cyber weapons. Then they will cry foul and condemn the cyberattacks as the act of terrorists and madmen.
The world has experienced the Cold War, the race for larger and more destructive atom and hydrogen bombs, for swifter far reaching inter-continental ballistic missiles. We have failed to put in place a moratorium on nuclear devices and we continue to pay the price, see Iran and Pakistan and the Middle East, always on the brink of a nuclear disaster.
Should we fail to invoke a worldwide cyber wars moratorium we will be repeat history and pay the price for our stupidity and short sightedness.
Deyan Ranko Brashich, an attorney, Op-Ed columnist, resides in New York City. “Letters from America,” a collection of essays, will be published January, 2013. His contact and blog “Contrary Views” is at www.deyanbrashich.com.