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Cyber-combat doesn't mean "non-lethal" warfare, warns Pentagon

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The following is a chapter from John Lasker's "T ECHNOIR: 13 Investigations from the Darkside of Technology, the US Military and UFOs"


Logo for Air National Guard's 262nd Information Warfare Aggressor Squadron by Air National Guard

Here's a background primer on cyberwarfare... 

The Battle on the Internet amongst the United States, Terrorists                                 and Patriotic Hackers 

Just months into his first term, President Obama was making cyberwarfare a top priority. The Pentagon, he said, would be home to America's new Cyber Command. These were smart and pragmatic moves, and made so early and easily in a President's first term. But they may become some of the most important set of decisions he ever makes. Because as the first decade of the 21st century comes to a close, mankind's ability to connect through cyberspace was getting easier and cheaper literally by the day. A "connectivity" that was once a luxury, is now a necessity for the daily lives of billions of people. Thus severing the lines of this connectivity could literally mean the Apocalypse of an information kind, and what exactly follows is a nightmare humanity has never truly faced.

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Downing the Internet could mean turning off modern life as we know it. Global business and finance systems would collapse. Draining bank accounts and erasing identities would be just a few personal nightmares that cyber-destruction or cyberwarfare could wrought. Don't forget cyberspace is also interconnected, in most cases, to all of mankind's most important physical infrastructures. Theoretically, experts say a team of covert hackers -" whether civilian or part of a military unit -" could shut down another nation's electrical grids, for example. And that of which can be shut down is a long, ominous list: Air traffic control towers could be blinded, phone systems cut dead, alarm systems deadened, traffic lights darkened, telecommunications silenced and satellite connections severed. Cyberattacks can also get dirty -" literally. In 2001, an Australian hacker used the Internet, a wireless radio, and some software, to hack into the network that controlled the sewage lines of a coastal town near Queensland, Australia. The hacker promptly released a virtual bowel movement of mega-proportions. He let loose 1 million liters of waste water into the ocean. 

But the worst cyberwar scenario must be this: Hackers access a network or computer that runs a nation's nuclear arsenal, and thus they have the power of hastening the Apocalypse. Scores of nations in the future will have an arsenal of warheads that will no doubt be part of a computer network connected to the Internet. Will their network security be as robust as America's?

So it was no great surprise that President Obama stressed defense as being of tremendous importance for America and for today's hyper-connected information age. More importantly, the US military has warned it cannot wage war if their Internet is down. But the Obama administration is also dead serious about the US's growing offensive capability in cyberspace and the Internet. Sometimes referred in military parlance as "Computer Network Attack" or CNA. 

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In the early 1980s, as the industrial age lay dying and the Information Age began to rise, the Cyberpunk genre of science fiction gave birth to the term "Cyberspace". A genre that gained traction with the help of authors such as William Gibson who coined the term cyberspace and authored one of sci-fi's greatest books, Neuromancer, which tells the story of a "console cowboy" in a terrifying future where life means surviving in two separate worlds: the physical and the virtual. Incredibly, Gibson predicted the advent of reality TV; he also predicted conflict in cyberspace. Roughly thirty years after Gibson's cyber prophecies, Cyberwar is here and now. A reality that heralds an age when one nation's "I-force" can take down another nation's cyberstructure -" and probably the nation itself. 

Indeed, the US and Russia are now wrangling over an arsenal that doesn't even spill blood. At the beginning of 2010, US and Russia were engaged in bilateral talks seeking to curtail an arms race in cyberspace. Russia has long sought a disarmament treaty for cyberspace, but during Bush administration, as it often did, never even come to the table.

For the most part, CNA is computer-verse-computer warfare, hacker-verse-hacker, where the battlefield is cyberspace. One version of CNA under development across the globe, for example, are "Logic Bombs", which can hide in networks for years and take them out when needed. But CNA doesn't entirely encompass super-secret codes. Microwave radiation devices can fry a network a mile a way, for instance. But how serious the American CNA arsenal is and how destructive, is a growing mystery. Yet the Joint Chiefs of Staff has said officially it wants to damage an enemy's computer network "so badly that it cannot perform any function." The Pentagon's cyberweapons are cloaked in hardcore secrecy. As for Russia's cyberweapons, perhaps their capabilities are a bit clearer.

In 2007, A series of cyberattacks or CNAs against the northern Europe nation of Estonia flooded scores of critical government and commercial websites, making them inaccessible for several days at a time. The attacks coming in the aftermath of Estonian governments decision to relocate a Russian-related war monument. Attacks that sure appeared like cyberwarfare as the black-hat hackers had predicted years before. The Russian hackers shutdown many of Estonia's critical online services, such as banking and finance, and for added insult, popular web sites defaced with hacker graffiti. For two weeks government servers were shocked and awed, and overloaded with information turning Estonia's cyberspace into a virtual pool of quick sand. 

A virtual onslaught against Estonia is a smart thing if you're going to war against them -" the nation is considered one of the most connected on earth. An Estonian government official called it their "9/11", even though no blood was shed. Estonians said Russians were bombarding their government servers with DDoS attacks better known as Denial of Service attacks. Some attacks originating from computers of the Russian government, they claimed. 

According to experts, the attacks were made with the use of a BotNet - a web of hijacked and compromised computers, many personal, spread across the world. These "zombie computers" (also known as "nodes"), had previously been ambushed and overtaken by a Trojan Horse, virus or worm, without the owner of the computer even knowing. Just before the attack, the Russians organized their zombies like Roman flanxs, and ordered them remotely via a BotMaster, to march on Estonia servers by bombarding them with information or a request for information at a steady clip. Flooding web sites with so much traffic they crash. International authorities have taken notice that BotHerders act as mercenaries selling their BotNets to militaries and governments. The Georgia Tech Information Security Center reported that 10 percent of all computers online are part of a BotNet, and according to the CIA, there may be 1.3 billion computers around the globe connected to the Internet.

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Not more than a year later after Estonia, Russia invaded its neighbor Georgia, and for the first time in history a cyberattack was used in conjunction with an armed conflict. But no one is sure if the attacks against sites such as the National Bank of Georgia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were committed by civilian hackers or military hackers. It's become a cyberwar mystery, making the prospects for cyberattacks even more tantalizing for those who have to wage modern warfare: CNA is hard to trace. Plus CNA is relatively cheap and easily executable. 

In 2009, North Korean hackers - as their country continued to teeter on the brink of total annihilation due to its psychopathic leadership - were accused of attacking dozens of US government sites such as the Pentagon's, the White House's official site, and also the the New York Stock Exchange, with DDoS attacks. The White House site would continue to face attack well into 2010. It's still not known if they were government hackers, civilians or paid mercenaries.

In the summer of 2009, "Hacktivists" (political hackers) kept Tehran a riot zone for several weeks with their ability to keep the lines of communication open by circumventing their government's effort to wall-off Iran's connection to the Internet. But as cyberspace has proven time and time again, information can flow like water through cloth. The Hacktivists used Facebook and Twitter to get their message out, coordinating hugely attended rallies.

In the US, as the Obama administration takes cyberwarfare to the center of the stage, the US military along with the National Security Agency are no doubt building the technology, the networks, the computer power and the viruses, that may someday take down Chinese satellite links, thus hopefully turning the People's Liberation Army blind and deaf as our forces close in. 

Indeed, research into offensive computer research is ongoing at fever-pitched pace. You can also bet that billions have been spent on this research and manpower. Not long ago, and during the Bush administration when the Pentagon had devils-horns for the most exotic of weapons, one high-ranking Air Force personnel basically gave notice to the rest of the world that rumors a Chinese military hacker unit was able to outwit and out-hack a US military hacker unit was nothing but bullshit. 

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John Lasker is a freelance journalist from Ohio. His work has appeared in Wired, Christian Science Monitor, Space News, Buffalo News and many more. His first book "TECHNOIR: 13 Investigations from the Darkside of Technology, the US military and (more...)
 

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