In just a few short decades, we have gone from the promise of cyber freedom to the fears of cyber war.
In the very week that the agencies which monitor online interactions reported that one third of the planet now has some form of online access, the Secretary of Defence of the United States sounded a 911 type alarm about the prospects of potentially crippling cyber attacks on the US.
Writing in Forbes, Joseph Steinberg, a self-described “cybersecurity guru, swimmer and member of Mensa”, claims the US is already losing the cyber war in the same way that earlier generations of “defence intellectuals” warned of a missile gap and beat the drums for more Pentagon spending.
Writes an alarmed and possibly alarmist Steinberg, “Defence Secretary Leon Panetta issued a warning that the United States is vulnerable to a ‘Cyber Pearl Harbour’ and revealed that digital attackers’ intent on causing ‘panic, destruction and loss of life’ have already breached highly sensitive infrastructure, including computers that run chemical, electric and water systems.”
In an earlier much quoted article, he identified China as the main threat, also noting:
“After 9/11, many people feared that the United States would suffer infrastructure-crippling cyber attacks by terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda. But I have been (and remain) far more concerned with the digital risks posed to our national security by rapidly developing non-democratic nations and by our failure to counter these threats.
Over the past month, we have heard stories of a virus on the US military’s drone-control systems, US satellites being successfully breached and a US warning issued regarding Chinese and Russian hacking. Of course, the more dangerous threats are the ones about which do not hear – or even know.”
Referencing attacks we don’t hear about are hard to refute but the detail seems less important than the idea that they are out to get us, and that we have to invest more to stop them.
Panetta brought his fears and fantasies to a New York national security business group meeting on a former aircraft carrier, now a museum, and, then, to the inner sanctum of Time Magazine, historically a backer of both cold and hot wars.
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He thundered, “The whole point of this is that we simply don’t just sit back and wait for a goddamn crisis to happen.”
“In this country we tend to do that, and that’s a concern,” Panetta told Time.
He added: “Out of a scale of 10, we’re probably 8 [in cyber-war skills. But potential foes] are moving up on the scale – probably the others are about a 3, somewhere in that vicinity, but they’re beginning to move up.” Huh?
He seems to be a graduate of the Joseph Biden school of obfuscation and folksy generalities. Is this more political “malarkey”?
The business group was paying attention because, as Time put it, cyber war is the next Pentagon multi-billion dollar “money pot”.
The political subtext here is that despite Republican denunciations of planned Defence cuts, Panetta was reassuring one and all that there is a new market here for the military-industrial complex to pursue.
Amusingly, Panetta also confessed he didn’t really know what the hell he was taking about: “I can tell you from my old job (CIA Chief), the level of expertise that I saw – and I don’t consider myself to be schooled in the art of knowing what the hell cyber systems [do] and how it all works – I’m not close to being there – but I saw people that are extremely bright, extremely able.”
So much for the proof! Bright people! Yet media outlets are picking up the story with little scrutiny. Bloomberg calls the warning “terrifying… Strong words – and ones that have the virtue of being both accurate and necessary”.
But then the editors admit: “One of the most pressing military threats facing the US today is one we can’t see, and therefore is the most difficult to have a sensible discussion about.” Yet, a study by Bloomberg Government of 172 organisations found that cyber security spending would need to increase almost nine-fold to repel 95 per cent of potential attacks.
Although initial reports pointed to threats from China, for many years America’s “Red Menace”, but now a county important to us economically, suddenly Iran, our current “enemy de jure”, is of course, emerging as bad guy #1.
Reports the AP in “US: Hackers in Iran Responsible for Cyberattacks on Oil, Gas Companies“:
“US authorities believe that Iranian-based hackers were responsible for cyberattacks that devastated Persian Gulf oil and gas companies, a former US government official said.”
Note this is from an unidentified former official.
‘Cyber arms race’
Iran got the signal clearly and promptly announced it is building up its own cyber war capacity, suggesting that a “cyber arms race” is already underway.
At the same time, most of our media implies that Washington’s approach is only defensive when there is clear evidence that the US is involved in offensive cyber war, including attacks on Iran’s nuclear programme in league with Israel.
They’ve admitted that.
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No wonder, Iran has announced plans, and some experts say they are ahead of us.
UPI now reports: “Iran has discovered a new way to harass much sooner than expected, and the United States is ill-prepared to deal with it,” James A Lewis, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said in an essay published Friday on ForeignPolicy.com.
A build up in articles warning of the cyber buildup is a sign that this subject, is on its way to becoming a bigger global issue.
News of the danger is now widespread; critical scrutiny of these claims is not.
Also, there has been inadequate attention paid to the role the US Justice Department is playing in taking down websites with political content the government finds offensive. A recent meeting of the Internet Society discussed threats to websites and domain names from overzealous US agencies which claim the right to seize cyber sites with little or no evidence.
Add this to the ongoing threats to personal privacy that the Civil Liberties Union warns against:
“Today, private companies are tracking as many of our movements as they can online, selling that information to other companies who in turn share it with law enforcement and the government. The technology they use to do this tracking is advancing rapidly and has become highly sophisticated, and individuals have little chance of keeping abreast of what is taking place when they surf, let alone taking the complex steps necessary to prevent this spying.”
In a sense, there is a cyber war already underway, not just between some countries, but within countries and against cyber-active citizens. Prosecutors are busy going after people who download music and movies as well as government documents.
When I was in Turkey last year for a conference on this issue, I was told about a march by 60,000 Turks in Istanbul against government censorship of the web. More cyber activism is growing worldwide as governments prepare for even more frightening “pre-emptive attacks” on a threat they cannot confirm.
News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at newsdissector.net. His most recent books are Blogothon and Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street. He hosts a radio show on ProgressiveRadioNetwork (PRN.fm). Comments to email@example.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @dissectorevents