War for the Web
05 02.13

War on the Internet

In the last month there have been some startling admissions from several newspapers that their newsrooms have been the target of malicious hacking activities over the last six months. It started with the New York Times own admission of being hacked, and their description of the way they confronted this dilemma. Since then, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have both acknowledged their own issues with hacking, and it looks as though Bloomberg is having some trouble as well. It looks like the hacking has been done from China, and the timing of the hacks coincide with the publication of a series of articles about the top leadership in China and their families by both the Times and the Wall Street Journal. Mandiant, the computer security group that the Times hired, has even gone so far as to suggest that it was the Chinese military coordinating these attacks.

There’s no proof that the Chinese government is in any way related to these attacks. They’ve maintained a level of deniability that most intelligence organizations would kill for (literally). In the face of this, the United States response has been pretty docile, to a point. The State Department made some noise, but no one has wanted to accuse anyone of anything.

But in the last week, Obama administration lawyers have articulated a justification for pre-emptive cyber war. Think the invasion of Iraq, but on the Internet. If the US detects a credible threat to its networks, it can attack in advance of the threat. This isn’t really a stretch for this administration, but the seriousness of cyber war isn’t something that most Americans think about on a daily basis.

When we think about being hacked, we think lost passwords and downed websites, but the prospect of cyber war is much scarier than that. Critical US infrastructure like power grids and waste water treatment, as well as much of our military apparatus, all depend on networked communications, and are vulnerable to attacks on the the Internet. I don’t just mean vulnerable in the sense that they would stop working as we’d like, but rather that they could be irreparably damaged. This could lead to massive, extended power outages, or damage to military infrastructure.

Some will see these latest pronunciations as further over reach by the US government, first it’s killing US citizens, then it’s saying it can pre-emptively attack any threat on the Internet, who knows what they’ll do next. I tend to agree that it’s an overreach. We live in a democracy, but over the last 12 years we’ve seen a pretty dramatic expansion of executive power. It started during the Bush administration, but it’s certainly been pushed along at speed by Obama. We should all take notice, because who knows when you or I will be classified as a threat? Just something to consider.

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