The year is 1983 and a boy named David finds his way into a top-secret military server and potentially kicks off a world war. It turns out that David is only a character played by actor Matthew Broderick in a film called “War Games”. Fast forward to 2010 and a nuclear facility in Iran inexplicably becomes compromised. It turns out the facility has been attacked by a computer virus. This is not fiction. No actors here. What’s more, the source of the attack is not 100% clear. It might have been Israel. It might have been China.
What is 100% clear is that computer viruses have graduated from criminal password/financial/personal data grabbing enterprises to large-scale industrial sabotage. The mainstream media covered the so-called Stuxnet virus as the story du jour for about a week and then the childish games of our Washington politicians bumped it from the front pages. The media doesn’t get it. The Stuxnet incident ushers in a new age of government sponsored computer disruption. It’s no longer some long-haired geek in the basement playing games. The potential for damage is tremendous. From exploiting vulnerabilities in Wall Street servers to infiltrating computer systems in nuclear launch facilities, a war fought entirely with software is now conceivable.
In tandem with this threat is the threat of information leaks. Bradley Manning would have been just another unknown member of the armed forces had he not leaked thousands of confidential military and diplomatic memos that found their way to Julian Assange, Editor-in-Chief of WikiLeaks a whistle-blower web site. The leaked documents have compromised our security and our diplomatic credibility. This story has had a bit more staying power in the mainstream media but probably for the wrong reasons. We’ve got liberals like Michael Moore donating to the defense fund of Assange, who is pending sexual assault charges. We’ve got others calling Assange a hero. We’ve got MSNBC and the Huffington Post reporting on near torture conditions for Bradley Manning who is under military arrest (and supposedly long-term solitary confinement). What gets lost in translation is the fact that this information, which in a computerized world is simply another form of data, can cause great damage to international relations and indeed lead to conflict.
And if you don’t think that information based data can be used as a threat, just look at what Assange told the media prior to his arrest in London. He said that if anything happened to him, an encryption key would be distributed to a vast network of trusted associates who had received encrypted versions of the leaked memos. They would decrypt the damaging information and distribute it. He might have been bluffing but his threat still summoned the specter of a distributed army of data-soldiers ready to attack at a moment’s notice.
In 2001, George W. Bush received a memo indicating Osama bin Laden determined to attack America. Many including me, made much of this briefing, accusing Bush of negligence. If we get out of the politics of it, one has to admit the briefing provided virtually no actionable information. Still it highlighted Bush’s and Clinton’s inability to track down this threat before it was too late. My fear is that as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, we are now faced with new threats that are not getting sufficient attention.
As we worry about signing the new START treaty which is basically grounded in the conventional warfare threat of the Cold War, what are we doing on the front of this new war? Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth—rocks!” I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the Third World War will be fought with data.