The undeclared, unwinnable cyberwar is now
Normally the U.S. government is quiet about it's offensive cyberwar strikes, but that changed in the past few weeks.
First there was the alarming NY Times article.
Over the past weekend, The New York Times reported that US Cyber Command has penetrated more deeply than ever before into Russian electric utilities, planting malware potentially capable of disrupting the grid, perhaps as a retaliatory measure meant to deter further cyberattacks by the country's hackers. But judging by Russia's response, news of the grid-hacking campaign may have already had the immediate opposite effect: The Kremlin warned that the intrusions could escalate into a cyberwar between the two countries, even as it claimed that Russia's grid was immune from such threats.
... since 2017, Trump has been elevating Cyber Command's authority and reversing Obama administration rules that required other agencies' sign-off before it launched an offensive hacking operation.
Then just a couple days ago there was an equally alarming WashPost article.
With an OK from the US president, the Pentagon this week launched cyberstrikes that took down Iranian computer networks used to control missile launches, says a report in The Washington Post, which cites unnamed people familiar with the matter.
Last Saturday, The New York Times reported that US Cyber Command had moved from a defensive to offensive posture, apparently under a military authorization bill Congress passed in 2018 that gives the go-ahead for "clandestine military activity" in cyberspace to "deter, safeguard or defend against attacks or malicious cyberactivities against the United States."
Not only did the operation jeopardise future use of the capability, it achieved nothing of tactical, operational, strategic, or diplomatic value.
Congratulations to CYBERCOM for a great op demonstrating capability to augment military effectiveness.
Sorry your bosses are
— thaddeus e. grugq (@thegrugq) June 23, 2019
At the moment it's easy to say "So what. Why should I care?"
But that false sense of impunity won't last very long.
Iran is already searching for a way to strike back.
Iran’s #cyber capabilities are real. As a result, US civilians at home could feel the destructive effects of conflict abroad for the first time in a long while. US civilian infrastructure is networked and vulnerable. https://t.co/o6OZVs1Ror
— Thomas P. Bossert (@TomBossert) June 23, 2019
There are several ways that cyberwars are different from regular wars.
1) No reason to limit the arms race; No reason not to put your weapons on their border
One thing is clear: Cyberspace is now seen by officers and officials as just another “domain” of warfare—along with air, land, sea, and space. But there’s something different and more dangerous about this domain: It takes place out of sight, its operations are so highly classified that only a few people know what’s going on there, and it creates an inherently hair-trigger situation, which could unleash war in lightning speed with no warning.
...It’s this instantaneity that creates a danger. If a lot of countries are inside one another’s networks, if they’re all able to shift from just-looking-around to unleashing-an-attack in no time, and if these countries are capable of launching an attack and are susceptible to receiving an attack, then this creates a hair trigger. In a crisis, one or more of these countries might launch a cyberattack, if just to preempt one of the other countries from doing it first. The very existence of the implants makes a preemptive attack more likely.
2) Cyberweapons can be easily used against you
Recent disclosures by Symantec and the New York Times suggest a recent Chinese cybersecurity hack against U.S. interests involved re-purposing and then attacking us with a cyberweapon using previously deployed, NSA-manufactured hacking code. They had intercepted after it was used against them.
The age of unwinnable cyberwar is upon us.
Think of this situation as analogous to neighbors throwing rocks at each other. Obviously, the first thrown rock is easily retrieved and re-launched at the opposing side. And subsequently so. This can go on forever until one side either gains strength in additional attackers, or escalates by deploying a new weapon.
3) The U.S. has a lot more to lose
"The idea that we can use cyber offense capabilities to impose sabotage-like effects, and to do so in increasingly large scale and costly ways until they get it through their head that they can’t win, I don’t think that's going to work," says Tom Bossert, who served as White House homeland security advisor and the president's most senior cybersecurity-focused official until April of last year. "I want to make sure we don’t end up in an escalatory cyber exchange where we lose more than they do."
Bossert points out that in many respects the US economy and infrastructure is far more reliant on digitization and automation than Russia's, giving the Kremlin an inherent advantage in any future no-holds-barred cyberwar. He paraphrases former secretary of defense Ash Carter: "If you're doused in gasoline, don't start a match-throwing contest."
We have so much more to lose from a cyberwar than literally any other nation.
If the internet gets disrupted what do you think will happen to our enormous tech companies and financial institutions?
It's like playing chicken when you are driving a Bentley and the other guy is driving a Ford. Even winning is losing in this case.