Cyber Warfare and the New Cold War

The Cold War was a unique period in history; a period of high political tension lasting for almost 45 years whereby the world was divided into distinct categories of extremely capable countries. The term “Cold War” was coined by George Orwell in an article entitled “You and the Atomic Bomb” published in the Tribune on October 19, 1945. In addition to creating the term “Cold War”, Orwell made some very keen observations:

  • The atomic bomb is an extremely destructive force that is misunderstood by the masses, yet carries a significant possibility that their life will be affected by it
  • The atomic bomb was seen as a new revolution in war and was likened to the discovery of gunpowder
  • Few superpowers had this significant warfare at their fingertips thus creating an imbalance in battlefield equality
  • The atomic bomb has caused nations that were once thought to be unconquerable to enter a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with their neighbors thus prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’

An Extremely Destructive and Misunderstood Force

Modern cyber-attacks are much like the atomic bomb, though on a completely different plane. A cyber-attack can be very destructive. Imagine if the attacks that destroyed thousands of computers in South Korea’s financial industry had instead been medical devices; the results of that attack would definitely be more tangible. The world has been brought to the reality that everything runs on computers many times over, however it soon forgets its reliance once the effect passes.

Revolutionary in Nature

Cyber warfare is a revolution in combat, however in a much different way than prior discoveries. The effectiveness of most warfare technologies focus on improving physically destructive capabilities either by increasing range, accuracy, or impact. Since the target in a cyber-attack is rarely physically damaged standard effectiveness measurements do not directly apply. The results of a cyber-attack are commonly one or more of the following:

  • Loss of intellectual property
  • Reduced capabilities or posturing
  • Propaganda, activism, or terrorism

In some cases the results can be very tangible, such as when the Stuxnet virus damaged critical infrastructure in Iran thus preventing uranium enrichment, damaging over 1000 centrifuges, and setting the country back in its research.

Creating Superpowers through Military Imbalance

Most countries today have developed both offensive and defensive cyber warfare capabilities which begs to question where the imbalance exists. Unlike traditional war whereby the targets are other state-sponsored organizations, cyber warfare takes an interesting turn; because physical destruction does not occur in a cyber-attack it is rarely associated with military action. It appears that this distinction enables cyber warfare to be used against non-government entities without the ethical implications of launching a military attack.

Not much separates a country from a corporate network when connected to the Internet. Both a country and a company possess:

  • Intellectual property and proprietary information
  • Internal and external reputation
  • Defensive capability
  • Foreign and domestic policy (manifested as corporate policy)
  • An economy (in business this would equate to business processes)

Working with this theory, we can see the Internet as the border separating the countries. At this point, one of the few things that separates a company from a government is the legality (and ethics) of possessing offensive cyber capabilities.

To amplify this concept, consider the development of US Cyber Command; the United States’ organization for military strategy on the Internet. This command is led by a 4-star general officer, the highest rank in the military and the same rank in charge of all military operations in major regions of the world. Development of an organization of this significance and purpose shows that the U.S. government recognizes the Internet as a separate territory from any other part of the world. The offensive and defensive needs of this region are significantly different and are important enough to warrant its own strategy.

Using this theory, when teamed with private industry’s lack of offensive capability, creates a situation whereby great power is held by few superpowers much like the atomic bomb was in 1945. Unfortunately, this will likely remain to be the case until law and policy catches up with technology.

Prolonging Indefinitely a ‘Peace that is no Peace’

It is no secret that the governments of most developed nations are constantly researching, testing, and executing cyber warfare operations on a regular basis. In addition, criminal organizations, activists, and other groups are developing and testing new cyber capabilities regularly. Despite the impact to targets, these attacks are rarely seen as acts of war. When executed by non-government organizations attacks run into issues with jurisdiction, terminology, and enforceability.

Today, cyber warfare enables countries to establish and maintain ongoing conflict with other countries (and, in many cases, private industry) without any formal declaration of war. The peace that is seen by the masses is a façade over continuous ongoing conflict on a battlefield that changes as soon as it becomes somewhat understood.

For those interested in reading the original George Orwell article, it is available on the following web page:

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