He who controls cyber space controls the world. The Author of @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex, Shane Harris, is an American journalist and author at Foreign Policy magazine. He specializes in coverage of America’s intelligence agencies, notably writing the book The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State. In the prologue to his new book he writes: “The leaders of the intelligence agencies, top military officers, and the president himself say that the consequences of another major terrorist attack on American soil pale in comparison with the havoc and panic a determined and malicious group of hackers could cause. Instead of stealing information from a computer, they could destroy the computer itself, crashing communications networks or disabling systems that run air traffic control networks. They could hijack the Internetconnected devices that regulate the flow of electrical power and plunge cities into darkness. Or they could attack information itself, erasing or corrupting the data in financial accounts and igniting a national panic.”
Here is an extract from @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex:
In October 2012 then defense secretary Leon Panetta warned that the United States was on the verge of a “cyber Pearl Harbor: an attack that would cause physical destruction and the loss of life, that would paralyze and shock the nation and create a profound new sense of vulnerability.” Five months earlier President Barack Obama wrote in a newspaper editorial that the wars of the future would be fought online, where “an adversary unable to match our military supremacy on the battlefield might seek to exploit our computer vulnerabilities here at home.” Obama painted a dire and arguably hyperbolic picture. But his choice of imagery reflected the anxiety gripping senior leaders in government and business that cyberspace, which seems to hold boundless promise for the nation, is also its greatest unaddressed weakness.
“Taking down vital banking systems could trigger a financial crisis,” Obama wrote. “The lack of clean water or functioning hospitals could spark a public health emergency. And as we’ve seen in past blackouts, the loss of electricity can bring businesses, cities and entire regions to a standstill.” FBI director James Comey has said the risk of cyber attacks and a rise in cyber related crime—to include espionage and financial fraud—will be the most significant national security threat over the next decade.
For the past two years the possibility of a crippling cyber attack has topped the list of “global threats” compiled by all seventeen US intelligence agencies in a report to Congress. Protecting cyberspace has become the US government’s top national security priority, because attacks online could have devastating effects offline. And yet the government is not telling us the whole story. Officials are quick to portray the nation as a victim, suffering ceaseless barrages from an unseen enemy.
But the US military and intelligence agencies, often with the cooperation of American corporations, are some of the most aggressive actors in cyberspace. The United States is one of a handful of countries whose stated policy is to dominate cyberspace as a battlefield and that has the means to do it. For more than a decade, cyber espionage has been the single most productive means of gathering information about the country’s adversaries—abroad and at home. The aggressive actions the United States is taking in cyberspace are changing the Internet in fundamental ways, and not always for the better. In its zeal to protect cyberspace, the government, in partnership with corporations, is making it more vulnerable.
The story of how securing cyberspace became so important for the United States starts with its efforts to control it, to use it as both a weapon and a tool for spying. The military now calls cyberspace the “fifth domain” of warfare, and it views supremacy there as essential to its mission, just as it is in the other four: land, sea, air, and space. The United States has already incorporated cyber attacks into conventional warfare, and it has used them to disable infrastructure in other countries—precisely the same kinds of malicious acts that US officials say they fear domestically and must take extraordinary measures to prevent. On the spectrum of cyber hostilities, the United States sits at the aggressive end.
The US military and intelligence agencies are fielding a new generation of cyber warriors, trained to monitor the computer systems of foreign adversaries, break in to them, and when necessary disable and destroy them. Cyber warfare, like cyberspace, is an amorphous term. But it applies to a spectrum of offensive activities. Just as espionage is an inextricable part of traditional warfare, so too is spying on a computer a prerequisite to attacking it. To be sure, the United States has spent far more time and money spying on computers and stealing information than
it has taking down critical infrastructures and destroying physical facilities through a computer connection. But it has done that, too. And it will do it more often, and more effectively.
Indeed, cyber warfare—the combination of spying and attack—was instrumental to the American military victory in Iraq in 2007, in ways that have never been fully explained or appreciated. The military, working with US intelligence agencies, used offensive cyber techniques (hacking) to track down people in the physical world and then capture or kill them. But just as protecting cyberspace is not the exclusive domain of government, waging war in cyberspace is becoming a private affair.
A burgeoning industry of cyber arms merchants and private security forces is selling its goods and services both to the government and to corporations that will no longer endure relentless espionage or the risk of cyber attack. The armies of nations will inevitably meet one another on the cyber battlefield. But the armies of corporations will meet there, too. Governments don’t operate in cyberspace alone. Defending computer networks, and launching attacks on them, requires the participation, willing or otherwise, of the private sector. The vast majority of computer networks in the United States are privately owned. The government cannot possibly protect or
patrol all of them. But most of the world’s communications travel through equipment located in the United States.
The government has a privileged position to exploit those networks, and an urgent need to protect them. To those ends, a military-Internet complex has emerged. Like the military-industrial complex before it, this new cooperative includes the makers of tanks and airplanes, missiles and satellites. But it includes tech giants, financial institutions, and communications companies as well. The United States has enlisted, persuaded, cajoled, and in some cases compelled companies into helping it fend off foreign and domestic foes who have
probed the American electrical grid and looked for other weaknesses in critical infrastructures.
The NSA has formed secret arrangements with marquee technology companies, including Google, to monitor private networks for threats. It has shared intelligence with major banks and financial institutions in order to prevent a catastrophic cyber attack on Wall Street. But the government also has attempted to force some companies into letting the NSA place monitoring equipment on its networks. And it has paid technology companies to install backdoors in their products that it can use to spy on foreign intelligence services and monitor military movements. Those clandestine access points also allow the military to launch cyber attacks in foreign countries. Without the cooperation of the companies, the United States couldn’t fight cyber wars. In that respect, the new military-Internet complex is the same as the industrial one before it.
The government doesn’t fight wars alone. It relies on companies to design weapons, move and feed troops, build and maintain aircraft, ships, and satellites. The United States became the most formidable military in world history through a mutually beneficial alliance with corporations. It aims to do so again in cyberspace.