Paul Marin, Columnist
Ideology: Liberal Republican | Writing from: George Washington University
A few months ago I argued that “China could send the United States back to the 18th century without firing a single missile.” The argument explains that as a result of its reliance on computers and the internet for its public utilities, air and train traffic controls, financial operations, and military effectiveness, the United States could be crippled by a cyber attack. A group of well trained hackers could launch such an attack from anywhere in the world using just a few laptops and a broadband internet connection. Their identities would only be detected after the attack ended.
But just because an attack could happen does not make it likely any time soon. Countries who possess powerful cyber capabilities like Russia and China have nothing to gain from such an attack. Currently, Russian leaders are seeking better economic relations with America and its European allies. At the same time, despite its increased assertiveness in the Pacific, China would never seek an open conflict — which is what a cyber attack would mean — with the United States for two reasons. First, the military balance of power strongly favors the United States. Second, an economically crippling cyber attack on the United States would undermine China’s largest export market and investors. Consequently, the Chinese and the Russian would likely continue to maintain their cyber operations to espionage and small-scale economic bullying (this is not to say that such operations should not concern the US — I will address them in a future article).
Similarly, “rogue” regimes like North Korea and Iran are unlikely to target America’s cyber veins. As much as those regimes try to portray themselves as irrational and unpredictable, direct conflict, even cyber conflict, with the United States would precipitate their collapse. The American people would not tolerate a cyber 9/11 and, if history is any indicator, they will demand military action against the aggressors — Pearl Harbor brought America into World War Two and 9/11 prompted a global war on terror. Despite their nuclear capabilities, neither North Korea or Iran could stand against the United States military on the conventional or nuclear levels of escalation. Whatever their ideologies, Iran and North Korea will not become the first cyber-suicidal nations. If they desired it, they would have already tried it.
Even irrational fanatics like Al-Qaeda who seek to destroy America regardless of the consequences they would face cannot inflict catastrophe on America through cyber warfare. As a result of the routing of Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan, the drone strikes in Pakistan as well as in other parts of the world such as Yemen, terrorists do not possess the infrastructure and know-how to wage cyber war. While it is possible for a single brilliant militant to program the most devastating computer worm in history from the mountain passes bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is highly unlikely that it will ever happen. First, this terrorist would need to discover a security breach to exploit before writing the code for this virus. Such reconnaissance activity requires an active broadband connection — a rarely found thing in the caves where they hide. Even if we assume that this hacker already knows what gap to exploitt, it is possible that cyber security experts fix that vulnerability before the terrorist has a chance to unleash his attack. Most computer security providers update their software even multiple times a day. And finally, even if the Al-Qaeda computer virus spread on the internet, the damage it would inflict would be limited for this lone terrorist, despite its presumed innate skills, could not know how to destroy critical infrastructure. According to Symantec Inc, a computer security firm, Stuxnet, the only computer worm in history attempting to control industrial infrastructure required 6 months of work by a team of ten well-funded experts. Ironically, the Stuxnet worm seems to target Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and was likely designed by either the US or Israeli military.
The United States is currently safe from cyber-warfare. However, the United States derives its safety not from any particular might but due to the fact that those with the capacity to threaten the United States, namely Russia and China, have nothing to gain by attacking the United States. But the international status quo is not frozen in vacuum and relations between the world’s powers can deteriorate. Therefore, the moment of online tranquility the United States is currently enjoying ought to be treated as a rare opportunity for the United States to invest its cyber defenses, end the turf battles between the military’s cyber command, the National Security Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security, and create an effective legal framework for its cyber defenders. For unpreparedness for the 21st century’s quiet wars might enable its foes to throw the United States back to the 18th century.