It has been called the ‘fifth dimension of warfare’. Along with land, sea, air and space – the cyberworld is increasingly becoming a new frontline.
Give me 30 seconds alone with your mobile phone and I can install software that would make your mobile phone a travelling microphone. From that moment on, even if it is shut down, your mobile phone will broadcast everything that goes on around you, through a number that I determine.
Innovations in technology are changing the tactics of modern-day conflict. There are new tools in today’s arsenal of weapons. Helped by advances in electro-magnetics and modern information and communications technology, a new form of electronic warfare has been created. It is called cyberwar and is increasingly recognised by governments and the military as posing a potentially grave threat.
And it is not just cyberwar that is a growing phenomenon. The internet has empowered cyberactivism, allowing people to share information and mobilise support to take direct action – both online and on the streets.
Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been at the forefront of this new wave of cyberactivism, helping to galvanise the protests that have recently spread across the Arab world.
The so-called Arab Spring has been described as an electronic revolution. Protesters were turned into citizen journalists – taking frontline images on their mobile phones and uploading them via their computers for the world to see. The regimes may have jammed the signals of satellite news channels and banned international reporters from entering their country, but they were unable to prevent citizens from becoming reporters in their own right.
From cyberactivism to cyberwar
Using the internet as a platform for political action is one thing. But infiltrating and disrupting computer networks and databases takes cyberwar to another level. American security experts have warned that a cyber-attack could cripple key governmental and financial systems and it is a threat the US is taking seriously.
In recent years a cyberwar has been brewing between China and the US, with both countries accusing each other of running an ‘army of hackers’.
A key battlefield in this war has been the case of Google.
The US internet company partially withdrew from China in 2010 after a tussle with the government over censorship and government-backed hacking.
China accuses the US of using Google to spy on the country, while Google accuses China of hacking into the email accounts of some of its members.
The US also appears to be engaged in a cyberwar with another erstwhile enemy: Iran.
It appeared to begin in 2009 following Iranian anti-government protests – sparked by the disputed presidential elections which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win another term in office.
Seeking to deprive the opposition of its main means of mobilising the masses, the Iranian authorities sought to choke off internet access.
We must differentiate between independent hackers and those of the state. We must understand that in some countries the authorities hire hackers with excellent technical knowledge to serve their interests. Everything is possible and states shouldn't accuse each other since all options are open in this war.
But the protestors continued to use sites such as YouTube and Twitter and when Twitter planned some routine maintenance that would have taken it offline for a few hours, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, asked the site to stay up and running while the protests continued.
Electronic eyes and ears
In the Middle East, Israel has set up a cyber command to secure the country against hacking attacks on its key networks.
Israel’s immediate neighbourhood is the place where it puts into use much of its technical know-how. Along its northern border with Lebanon, Israel deploys a large network of electronic eyes and ears.
And in the ongoing intelligence war between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, increasingly sophisticated electronic equipment is being used.
In February 2010, Lebanon arrested a man who reportedly confessed to being a Mossad agent. It was claimed that he had used sophisticated surveillance equipment that sent signals to his Israeli handlers via a mobile phone and computer located in a hidden compartment inside his car.
It may all sound like science fiction, but a global spying network does exist that can eavesdrop on every single phone call and email on the planet.
Eavesdropping on phone calls and text messages has become increasing easy for those with the right equipment, especially with the development of GSM networks – the technology used on the vast majority of mobile phone networks around the world.
A brave new world?
Many analysts are amazed at how internet users voluntarily hand over vast amounts of personal data to social media sites.
And planting software into a person’s phone or computer to steal data has become a new tactic of warfare in the fifth dimension.
We live in a brave new world of information and communication technology. The possibilities seem infinite, endless… and uncertain.