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The Real Face of Cyberwar?

11 December 2009

Anyone who reads the papers sees stories — or hype — about cyberwarfare. Can it happen? Has it already happened, in Estonia or Georgia? There has even been a Rand Corporation study on cyberwarfare and cyberdeterrence. I wonder, though, if real cyberwarfare might be more subtle — perhaps a "cyber cold war"?

A case in point is the recent release of hacked — stolen — emails on climate change from the University of East Anglia. A British publication, The Independent, has published a story saying that Russian secret services may have been behind the hack, for diplomatic reasons.

This time, if it was indeed the FSB behind the leak, it could be part of a ploy to delay negotiations or win further concessions for Moscow. Russia, along with the United States, was accused of delaying Kyoto, and the signals coming from Moscow recently have continued to dismay environmental activists.

We comonly associate warfare with armies that use so-called "kinetic weapons" against each other and against the opposing country. That need not be the only form warfare can take. Zhou Enlai, for example, once remarked that "diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means." In the science fiction realm, Poul Anderson wrote a story "State of Assassination" (also known as "A Man to My Wounding") about war being replaced by a state of assassination. Instead of brute force attacks with atomic weapons, countries have switched to killing each others' leaders. But one side has gone a step further, and started targeting others.

As the Rand report has pointed out, "certainty in predicting the effects of cyberattacks is undermined by the same complexity that makes cyberattacks possible in the first place" (p. xiv). The report goes on to stress how unclear the effects of a massive cyberattack would be. Perhaps this sort of narrowly-targeted operation, in support of "diplomacy" is the real future of warfare.

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