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Fritz Nelson
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Full Nelson: The Growing Threat Of Cyberwarfare

Many more casualities will pile up, but policy and agreements will prove meaningless against today's anonymous cyberwarrior.

In light of the growing concern related to Google cyber attack, we're re-posting this column, which originally ran October 19, 2009.

Gladiators and jousters, Wild West gunslingers and kamikaze pilots, are long retired to history books and celluloid epics, each a reminder of war tactics from a bygone era. They're supplanted today by anonymous warriors--pseudonyms sitting in virtual garrisons, spying, probing, and launching attacks from non-descript buildings all over the world. This is not your father's war. It's not even your older brother's war. In cyberwarfare, there may be no victors, no spoils, just havoc, theft, and assault.

Those who cling mindlessly to notions of war driven by sovereignty and territorial conquest through armed forces should look no further than the specter of current events, where warlords live in caves and their henchmen strap on home-made explosives. Take shock value and terror and layer in the Internet's abstraction and suddenly those who hate or feel disenfranchised or seek wealth or yearn for sanity, or whatever else, gain instant targets and instant audience, and an almost-impossible cave to find.

New wars call for new rules and new definitions. Kris Herrin, chief security officer of Heartland Payment Systems, recently riveted banking industry veterans, as he often does when he folds his company's disastrous security breach inside out. The Russian hackers who breached Heartland and stole its data late last year outsource their malware development to India, have customer service guarantees, offer a help desk, and provide a fully automated attack platform (you can select a target and an attack method, much as you would customize a hand bag online).

It would be easy enough to label this cybercrime, but Russian civilians have engaged in cyberattacks against neighboring Georgia. During Herrin's talk, a Bank of America executive reminded the audience that the Department of Homeland Security revealed that Al-Qaeda had attacked banks worldwide to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to fund its operations. Cybercrime, or cyberwarfare? The Russian outfit that attacked Heartland breached 300 financial institutions. If they marched into America as armed militia, or took out electric grids with guns and tanks, would that be crime or war? The lines blur.

Fear and outrage followed North Korea's alleged infiltration of the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission computer systems. The U.S. reportedly hacked into Iran's systems early this decade to monitor that country's nuclear program. The New York Times reported that U.S. soldiers lured Al-Qaeda into a death trap by hacking into a computer and falsifying information. There are numerous reports on persistent probes from Chinese hackers into U.S. systems, including network operators penetrating several electric grids. Some government officials suspect China of building trapdoors (hidden code or altered physical layers) into the chips that run many of our computer systems.

Well-known security researcher Marcus Ranum argues that cyberwarfare doesn't exist, that cyberattacks only accompany a vast military invasion. Besides, what right-minded military would tolerate a weapon that could be disabled with a push of a button. And yet unmanned fighter drones capable of surveillance and strikes fly non-stop miles above Iraq and Afghanistan and regularly fall into automated holding patterns when pilots thousands of miles away lose Internet connectivity to the aircraft, cyberflanks exposed.

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