Cyber warfare has media, policy-makers, and military strategists up in arms. What are the real risks?
A war is breaking out across cyberspace. But it’s unlikely that it will lead to the catastrophic scenarios envisioned by the global media or Canada’s military strategists. The chances that the world’s financial and services infrastructure will be thrown into digital darkness are slim. Despite the arms race now underway to build offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, this war is not necessarily the one anticipated by former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke or the new U.S. Cyber Command.
The so-called “cyber war” gripping the imagination of western policy-makers is more incremental and wide-ranging than most people think. It is not made up exclusively of lone hackers and rogue states – a threat first signaled with Moscow’s attack on the U.S. in 1999. Instead, it’s being waged by a complex global constellation of actors, from progressive activists to transnational gangs, organized criminal groups, and insurgents. If not handled with understanding and care, an overzealous counter-attack could do dramatically more harm than expected.
Few doubt that today’s global telecommunication environment is vulnerable to attacks such as those experienced by the U.S. military and Estonia. The pace at which the internet is spreading has generated an unprecedented level of technological interdependence. Literally any group, no matter how big or small, can launch denial-of-service attacks or hack and manipulate corporate networks. These are not the only threats, yet the current focus on them risks detracting attention from the real war: the one over the values and freedoms of billions of users around the world.
In 2010, the population using the internet in the Global South will exceed that of wealthy western countries by a factor of two or more. The staggering growth in usage is driven by decreasing telecommunications costs and the rapid spread of cheap smartphones, laptops, and PCs. As a result, connecting to global supply chains and shaping public perception (for good or bad) can be performed from Montreal to Mogadishu. Our military strategists and politicians are only beginning to understand the implications of this level of global interconnectedness.
What is abundantly clear is how the growth of the global information commons is empowering the erstwhile voiceless. Internet access has opened the doors to a brave new world of formal and informal economic opportunity, not least global cybercrime. For years, Nigerian gangs have dominated online fraud, as reported by the internet crime complaint centre. Likewise, China, where a third of the world’s internet population resides, is also the largest dispenser of innovative computer viruses and Trojans. Few of these are the work of Chinese intelligence agents.
In the language of the U.S. military, cyberspace constitutes the paradigmatic ungoverned space where the rule of law is unevenly applied. In other unlawful areas including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Guatemala, such spaces are quickly colonized by crime and violence entrepreneurs. Unsurprisingly, transnational gangs, including Mexican cartels, are taking their fight to YouTube, in some cases exacting ransom from the families of kidnapped victims and posting gruesome footage of executions. Similar methods are being deployed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Global cyberspace can be imagined as a complex international ecosystem. It connects everyone from newly empowered political movements, such as Iran’s green revolutionaries, to Nigerian fraudsters, Russian cyber criminals, Salvadorian gangsters, and militants such as al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. All of them are heavily dependent on the existence and persistence of the global network. Without it, their global reach diminishes, and their ability to shape global politics localizes. Their access to international financial networks and supply chains is once again constrained.
States also have much at stake in their real or rhetorical efforts to “take down the net.” This is especially so when considering that the collateral effects of an all-out cyber war on a globally interconnected grid are so poorly understood. Moreover, the circumstances under which a new generation of cyber weapons – from massive false-target generators and defence shields to malicious code and spyware – would be used are hard to fathom. During the 2003 Iraq war, for example, the decision was made not to launch a computer network attack against the Iraqi central bank, owing to the contagion effects on the global banking system.
Interstate cyber war on a major scale is a remote possibility. The policy conundrums associated with the use of a new generation of offensive cyber weapons are not dissimilar to those surrounding the first use of nuclear weapons, and may well yield a doctrine of mutual restraint. But if the deployment of cyber weapons by states is unlikely, what is the real war? Paradoxically, in the West’s bid to combat rogue states, cyber terrorism, and cyber crime, it may unintentionally roll back hard-won freedoms and tools for empowerment. The most significant casualties of the ongoing war may be the West’s own core values.
Repressive regimes fully recognize the potential of cyberspace for civic empowerment. They are only too eager to latch onto the West’s emerging securitization discourse to justify crackdowns on internet access at home. They do this flagrantly by filtering content and launching surveillance. Groups such as the Open Net Initiative and other platforms have documented the significant increase in state censorship of the internet in more than 45 states, most of them authoritarian or otherwise repressive.
Paradoxically, it is the West’s own fears of a digital apocalypse and a globally criminalized cyberspace that may be contributing to repression in the very countries it seeks to influence. In its rush to treat the symptoms, it may unintentionally kill the patient. For all its risks and unknowns, cyberspace still represents a medium that has led to the greatest expansion of individual freedoms in the last two centuries. The cyber war is unlikely to be one that ends with a bang – but it may sadly snuff out the flames of freedoms that have only recently been lit.