The Unseen Front: The Looming Spectre of Cyberwar
Traditionally, war is viewed as a direct conflict between two or more countries, the exception being civil war (infighting). The Cold War of the 1900s altered our perceptions and the “cyberwar” of the 2000s is certain to do the same.
Yet what exactly qualifies as a “cyberwar?” Is it simply one government taking hostile actions over the internet against another? Or is it subtler than that—a new type of espionage designed to gain the upper hand?
In truth, neither of those definitions is incorrect.
The Evolution of Espionage
For most of history, nations used spies to figure out their enemies’ strategies and beat them to the punch. Assassins, moles, and other undercover operatives were tasked with undermining the opponent country’s intelligence, planning, and leadership.
But most of these actions were much more direct. They involved physical intervention which by many could be considered an act of war if discovered. Cyberwarfare is much harder to quantify and much easier to obscure the source.
Today, operatives in the United States are constantly monitoring other countries’ actions and carefully screening information for anything that might prove disadvantageous or threatening. They are literally the first line of defense.
At times, they act as saboteurs. A recent failure in a long line of North Korean blunders was attributed in part to “cyberwar” conducted by US operatives. And while North Korea serves as little more than a bad joke to many, its digital troubles are indicative of much bigger things internationally.
The issue is that the United States isn’t the only player in the illusive global cyberwar.
Russia and China
It’s no secret that China is involved in cyberwarfare. They have been accused numerous times of hacking US systems and interfering in everything from government operations to everyday businesses.
The more curious point regarding China’s activities is that despite being directed at specific targets, no actions have formally been classified as acts of war. There is no doubt many reasons for this:
- Most “cyberattacks” are little more than political maneuvers
- No one is directly injured in the clear majority of these hacks
- Large countries have nothing to gain by engaging in traditional war with one another
Yet while China engages in economic and political warfare with the US in this new front, Russia is playing an entirely different game. Their actions have extended as far as blacking out an entire city almost as if to prove a point.
Overt actions such as this are exactly what threaten to push cyberwarfare into new territory.
The legitimate fear we face when Russia or other countries take direct action using cyberattacks is that we might suffer more than just economically. Shutting down a city’s power grid means lifesaving services also come to a screeching halt. People being served by hospitals face the real possibility of certain death with power cut for an extended time.
These kinds of actions threaten to escalate to more traditional war and that’s exactly why the “game” governments are playing right now is such a big concern. What’s more, bodies such as the UN further muddy the waters as digital acts of war create uncertainty about how the world’s governments will react.
For the reasons previously listed, most large nations would still like to avoid direct conflict. Besides being absurdly expensive, a direct war is a logistical nightmare in the modern era and is almost certain to end in nightmarish disaster.
Most likely, cyberwar will continue its current route.
Though there is almost no credible proof establishing the involvement of foreign governments in the US 2016 Presidential elections, it’s still difficult to rule it out with certainty. And this kind of interference is exactly the sort we should be anticipating in the future.
Cyberwarfare accomplishes, if nothing else, manipulation of information and truth. By sewing doubt and planting conflicting information, major governments stand to cause serious disruptions in governmental stability across the world.
This is one area where governments have some competition. Private parties—whose interests vary from business to personal—also manipulate information bordering on a cyberwarfare level to accomplish their goals. This can be seen in major drug companies as they advertise what amounts to literal poison as “researched” cures to common problems. The reverse is also true of snake oil salesmen.
Bottom Line: Cyberwar is Already Here
Like it or not, countries and private interests have been at war in the digital space for years. The casualties are rarely lives, but rather livelihoods. Slander little different than the tabloids at the grocery checkout is the current norm for the basics of cyberwarfare.
More technical attacks continue to be perpetuated daily, but are considerably fewer and far between. The victims tend to be countries without strong international voices (though many have only themselves to blame—looking at you North Korea).
If Facebook got one thing right, it’s this: fake news is everywhere. And it’s here to stay, because ultimately that’s what the truth of cyberwar often is.
Where do you think this is going? Do you have any insights that you’d like to share? Please let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment below.