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Belmont Club

The wizard war

April 28th, 2009 - 3:14 pm

MSNBC reprints an NYT article describing cyberattack and defense concepts that are either already in place or are being developed. Many of these concepts were apparently developed during the Bush Administration and their use and success is still highly classified. However, the cybermeasures which affected domestic information flows were canned because the Bush administration did not believe it had the “political capital” to carry it out. One of the most interesting nuggets in the article is reference to a kind of cyber-range, a simulation of the real world Internet, in which the effects of attack and defense could be observed.

When President George W. Bush ordered new ways to slow Iran’s progress toward a nuclear bomb last year, he approved a plan for an experimental covert program — its results still unclear — to bore into their computers and undermine the project.

And the Pentagon has commissioned military contractors to develop a highly classified replica of the Internet of the future. The goal is to simulate what it would take for adversaries to shut down the country’s power stations, telecommunications and aviation systems, or freeze the financial markets — in an effort to build better defenses against such attacks, as well as a new generation of online weapons.

Some of the information in the article will doubtless be familiar to people in the industry.  The US can activate microcode or sleeper software in hardware or systems that it has marketed abroad. Doubtless the Chinese, French and other vendors have been playing the same game too. So on the day or Der Tag, the trumpets will blow and all the virtual angels and demons will be summoned to battle,  not among the electrons — there is really no physical analogy for this — but in a truly abstract world, supported in by the physical layers but conceptually apart from it.

But that highlights another facet of cyberwarfare. Unlike physical war it is always taking place to a greater and lesser degree. Very often cyberattack and defense is conducted jointly with physical warfare. One example cited by the article was a US military hack into al-Qaeda’s messaging system to get a targeted individuals right where they could be taken out, proving that what you don’t know can really hurt you.  One of the fascinations of information warfare (for me at least) is its ability materialize concepts. The gap which separates concepts from their physical manifestation is smaller than at any time in the past. Ideas can do things. Generations who heard the Biblical phrase “and the Word was made flesh” understood it in a mystical or allegorical way. But today the Word can come within half a step of reality in a very short time. Just think of your credit card. Hate, like stupidity, can materialize in the form of a wide-bodied airplane over New York city. Someone with whom I am in correspondence is working on a book on “cognitive warfare”. It’s an amazing concept and I hope someone gets his book going. I hope he can find a place in it for this quote:

“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”

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