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Inside Story Americas

Will the US wage cyber war on its enemies?

As the Pentagon looks to expand its cyber security force, we ask how it will impact online privacy and internet freedom.
Last Modified: 29 Jan 2013 09:14

At a time when policy makers in Washington are talking about cutting the size of the US military, the department of defence has signalled it is to dramatically increase the size of its Cyber Command over the next few years.

"Compared to the size of the American military and of the Pentagon itself, it is a tiny number, and given the importance of cyber security, given the fact that all our defence systems depend upon computers, all of our weapons ... our military operations are completely dependent on computers, devoting fewer than 5,000 people to cyber security seems [like a] very small thing."

- Scott Borg, the director of US Cyber Consequences Unit

Proponents of the plan argue it is a prudent response to the changing nature of 21st century warfare. They argue that in recent years cyber attacks at the behest of governments have increased in frequency and ferocity.

The US government only acknowledged developing cyber weapons recently, and it has never publically admitted using them. But reporting by The New York Times last year revealed that President Obama's administration has carried out attacks on the computer systems that run Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities.

The US defence officials, however, point to an attack last year on the Saudi state oil company Aramco, that took down more than 30,000 computers. They claim the Iranian government was responsible.

Critics of the expansion of US Cyber Command suggest it will mark a further threat to privacy and internet freedom. In addition they are concerned that the National Security Agency and Pentagon who oversee the programme lack accountablity and oversight.

"The US government is the single greatest menace when it comes to aggressive cyber warfare. The United States government along with the Israelis is really the only country to use cyber weapons in a sophisticated and aggressive way, just like it was the only one to use the atomic bomb; and before that it was the only one to use drone warfare so a major part of this expansion is not about protecting businesses from attack ... [but] it is making sure the US government can continue to destroy whomever it wants at will using sophisticated cyber weaponry."

- Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian

The US Cyber Command was set up in 2010 and currently employs about 900 people. According to The Washington Post, there are plans to hire at least 4,000 additional personnel.

Cyber Command plans to develop three types of forces:

  • National Mission Forces - will work to protect computer systems that run electrical grids and other infrastructure deemed critical to US security
  • Combat Mission Forces - will focus on helping US commanders abroad plan and execute offensive cyber attacks 
  • Cyber Protection Forces - will work on strengthening the computer networks of the defence department itself

So does the decision to expand the size of its cyber security force suggest a new determination by the US to wage cyber war on its enemies?

To answer this, Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, is joined by guests: Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for The Guardian; Scott Borg, the director and chief economist at the US Cyber Consequences Unit (US-CCU); and Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defence.

"These attacks mark a significant escalation of the cyber threat and they have renewed concerns about still more destructive scenarios that could unfold .... Collective result of these kinds of attacks could be a Cyber Pearl Harbor."

Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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