Is cyberwarfare ‘official’ warfare or just a bunch of geeks in uniforms playing tricks on each other with sneaky code?
It’s hard to imagine what cyberwarfare actually looks like. Is it like regular warfare, where two sides armed with arsenals of deadly weapons open fire on each other and hope for total destruction? What do they fire instead of bullets? Packets of information? Do people die? Or is it not violent at all — just a bunch of geeks in uniforms playing tricks on each other with sneaky code?
Barack Obama would like to clear up this question, thank you very much. In an op-ed published in Friday’s Wall Street Journal the president voiced his support for the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 now being considered by the Senate with the help of a truly frightening hypothetical: “Across the country trains had derailed, including one carrying industrial chemicals that exploded into a toxic cloud,” Obama wrote, describing a nightmare scenario of a cyber attack. “Water treatment plants in several states had shut down, contaminating drinking water and causing Americans to fall ill.” All because of hackers!
This cyberwar scenario wouldn’t be so scary if it weren’t basically accurate. In fact, a water treatment plant in Texas actually did have to shut down after some a twentysomething hacker with a Guy Fawkes mask cracked into the system. While this was going on, a network of vigilantes were busy breaking into natural gas pipelines, perhaps to disrupt the flow and manipulate markets. Thankfully, we’ve not yet seen the trains derailing and toxic cloud spreading scenario, though train systems in the Pacific Northwest were recently targeted.
So I suppose Obama is sort of justified in writing a hyperbolic fear mongering column for one of the biggest papers in the country. After all, it looks like the folks on Capitol Hill need a little bit of motivation. After working on watering down the bill for weeks, Senate Republicans successfully got a revised version introduced. Like the original, the revised version of the bill establishes a National Cybersecurity Council, but drops the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to set and enforce standards. The security standards that were regulated and required in the original bill are now only recommended. “This compromise bill will depend on incentives rather than mandatory regulations to strengthen America’s cybersecurity,” Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman explained in a statement.
Congress going easy on cybersecurity doesn’t jive with what the armed forces are doing. While Congress has been backing and forthing over this legislation for the past six months, the Pentagon has actually been doubling down on its efforts to prepare for cyberwar. We found out earlier this month that the Air Force and other branches of the military were actively preparing for the possibility of launching an offensive cyber attack, and unlike the secrecy that shrouded years past, they’re eager to talk about their plans. This comes after years of leaders wringing their hands over our lack of preparedness when it comes to the threat of cyberwar.
At the end of the day, we still don’t really know what cyberwar would look like because we haven’t really fought one yet. Sure, it could involve trains derailing and water plants shutting down. It could also be worse, targeting our nuclear power facilities, our airports, our power grid, our Internet. As we become more and more dependent on the technology that keeps our infrastructure afloat, we’re also introducing new vulnerabilities that villains we’ve never met could exploit. I’m not trying to scare you. I’ll leave it to President Barack Obama to do that.
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