COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Cyber cold war is a new threat

The cold war menace never ended with the demise of the Soviet Union. It just changed from nuclear to cyber. That was the opinion of Michael Nacht, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley in a speech at UC San Diego School of International Relations/Pacific Studies.

That’s not to say the nuclear threat has gone away. North Korea and Iran are still rattling swords over their ability to produce a nuclear weapon expecting to gain concessions from the western world. It means that security in the cyber realm has captured the attention of the global police seeking terrorist activity.

It will help to understand what “cyber” stands for beyond the common knowledge that it’s the engine that runs the Internet and all the related computer applications. In fact, there is no listing for cyber in The Oxford Dictionary. The closest is “cybernation” (control by machines) and “cybernetics” (the science of communications and automatic control systems.)

In a more up-to-date version, the Oxford Dictionary of New Words lists “cyberpunk,” dating from 1984, as a style of science fiction writing or a writer combining high-tech controlled artificial intelligence with nihilistic social values. Try to explain that to grandma.

The abbreviated word we use so liberally today relates to sending information on the worldwide web and the expanding industry of information technology. Everyone seems to be involved in some form of cyber science with resources like Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Now that cyber has been vaguely defined, let’s return to Dr. Nacht’s theory that fear of a nuclear war with Russia or China is replaced by cyber security to fend off terrorist activity. He calls it a new military division using CyberCom to monitor terrorist suspects.

Unfriendly use of cyber technology can cause as much damage as a nuclear war head. An example is the shutdown of a transportation system, such as air traffic control at a major international airport. Another is invasion of military strategy and movements to spy on U.S. armed forces. The recent exposure to public scrutiny of diplomatic cyber correspondence by Wikileaks revealed how vulnerable classified secrets can be.

That is verified by the recent international hacking of all the tax returns filed electronically in South Carolina. Millions of individuals and corporations had their entire identity stolen by an unknown invader. It took days to encrypt the data on file, and heads are rolling at the tax collector’s office.

Another real-life example is the shut-down of the air traffic grid that could be a terrorist target. During Hurricane Sandy this fall that hit the East Coast, power failures caused by weather conditions and airports closed depicted what a cyber bandit could do to the airline system. During the hurricane, 19,000 flights were cancelled leaving countless millions of passenger stranded in the storm or unable to connect to other flights away from the storm area. Even a flight originating from San Diego to Hawaii I was on at that time flew nearly half-empty for lack of connecting passengers from the East Coast.

The Economist outlook on cyber warfare, captioned “Hype and Fear,” reports that cyberwar is already upon us with the grim prediction that an attack on American systems would make 9/11 look like a tea party.

Despite all the hype, policies for on cyber-warfare remain confused and secretive, the news magazine continues. The Pentagon has a budget of $32.4 billion to work on rules for shutting down a suspicious foreign server in collaboration with the National Security Agency.

In conclusion, the article quipped that cyber-terrorism has remained largely in the imagination of film makers.

Checking the Internet for more data on cyberwar revealed an extensive number of research projects in process. Universities, such as Cambridge and UC San Diego, are among the many organizations seeking means to combat cyber intrusions. Rand Corp. is one of the private-sector groups also conducting research.

Rand’s description of cyber-warfare states it involves the actions by nation-states or international organizations to attack or attempt to damage another nation’s computers or information networks through computer viruses or denial of service.

That’s a recipe for disaster that compares to a nuclear attack or reactor meltdown that frightens humanity worldwide.


Ford is a freelance writer located in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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