Grasping around for a new enemy: Pentagon redefines hacking as act of warfare

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2011

So, with OBL offed and Al Qaida effectively beheaded (as if it hadn’t already been waning considerably in its ability to achieve anything of note), the defence budget of the US needs a new enemy to justify its continued expansion. But no one with sense would start an old-school land war these days (missions of liberation and the insurgencies they provoke are an entirely different category, of course), so what is there that merits a bit of saber-rattling?

“People we don’t like who also have nukes or are trying to get them” is a hardy perennial, but most of them have gathered enough friends (or mutual enemies-of-their-enemy) that it’s getting hard to make anyone care other than the lapdog allies over on Airstrip One. Something current, scary and poorly-understood would be ideal… something like the nebulous and poorly-defined notion of “cyberwarfare”, perhaps?

The Pentagon’s first formal cyber strategy, unclassified portions of which are expected to become public next month, represents an early attempt to grapple with a changing world in which a hacker could pose as significant a threat to U.S. nuclear reactors, subways or pipelines as a hostile country’s military.

In part, the Pentagon intends its plan as a warning to potential adversaries of the consequences of attacking the U.S. in this way. “If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks,” said a military official.

Recent attacks on the Pentagon’s own systems—as well as the sabotaging of Iran’s nuclear program via the Stuxnet computer worm—have given new urgency to U.S. efforts to develop a more formalized approach to cyber attacks. A key moment occurred in 2008, when at least one U.S. military computer system was penetrated. This weekend Lockheed Martin, a major military contractor, acknowledged that it had been the victim of an infiltration, while playing down its impact.

The report will also spark a debate over a range of sensitive issues the Pentagon left unaddressed, including whether the U.S. can ever be certain about an attack’s origin, and how to define when computer sabotage is serious enough to constitute an act of war. These questions have already been a topic of dispute within the military.

I expect that open-endedness is a feature rather than a bug, because it offers a great opportunity to put the great economic enemy in the frame: if China’s consolidating the stranglehold on your economy which your own foreign and fiscal policies practically begged them to begin, it’s time to puff up your chest and get stern with them commies! Don’t take it from me, though – here’s Thomas P M Barnett with a plainly-titled post at TIME: “According to new Pentagon cyber strategy, state-of-war conditions now exist between the US and China“. Ouch.

In other words, if you, Country C, take down or just plain attack what we consider a crucial cyber network, we reserve the right to interpret that as an act of war justifying an immediately “equivalent” kinetic response (along with any cyber response, naturally). If this new strategy frightens you, then you just might be a rational actor.

Theoretically, this means if you, Country C, hack and disable the net of crucial US installation X, America can fire missiles at your equivalent civilian or military installation (C)X. Of course, by responding to your “act of war,” we are initiating our own war response, meaning we’d need presidential approval to start the fireworks. But the key point is, by hacking something that we consider to be national security-sensitive, you leave yourself open to a state-of-war response from the United States at the time of its choosing, so be forewarned.

Which facilities fall into this “eye for an eye (or ear or . . .)” category? Naturally, America shouldn’t say, so as to keep Country C in the dark (the essence of deterrence), but putting us in the dark (take-down of an electric grid) is an obvious one cited in the WSJ piece. Again, theoretically, almost anything can be described as crucial on some national security scale (e.g., hack Monsanto in just the right way and maybe you put US food security at risk), because the small damage that you, Country C, choose to create in our nets might easily cascade into something far larger, so virtually any hack emanating from your networks puts you at risk for a US war response.

(I wonder what the reaction would be to an equivalent policy elsewhere? Let’s say – strictly hypothetically, of course – that Big Nation-state A is revealed to have funded and built some sort of infrastructural sabotage virus with the strict intent of targetting the facilities of Nation-state B; will the US fully understand Nation-state B declaring war on A, or will that be considered a disproportionate act by a rogue state? Guess it’ll depend on which of the two the Pentagon is more interested in keeping on-side.)

Seriously, though: when a pro-intervention pro-globalisation type like Barnett thinks this is a bad play, it’s got to be a real dick move:

This is an destabilizing step sideways in our security relationship with China: Beijing is being warned that its current and ongoing behavior can – at any time – be loosely interpreted as an act of war. Whatever situations or crises ensue, that handy rationale is now always sitting in the Pentagon’s back pocket, because I guarantee you, whenever big-war enthusiasts want to play that card, the Defense Department will be able to muster – at a moment’s notice – a long list of Chinese hacking attacks over the previous X hours/days/weeks/months. So when the President asks, “Do we have evidence that the Chinese are targeting us at this time for cyber-sabotage?” The answer will always be yes.

[…]

Bottom line? Strangelove has re-entered the Building.

That last line implies Strangelove ever left the building; I suspect he’s been stored in boardroom cupboards against the appropriate moment.

Deliberate or otherwise, the daftest thing here is that the Pentagon can grok that “cyberwarfare” is a threat, but doesn’t seem to entirely grok the fact that cyberwarfare doesn’t need to be a function of nation-state level decision-making. Indeed, the real threat is from non-nation-state actors, wherever they may be based. NATO seems wise to this, though, with the General Rapporteur issuing dire warnings to Anonymous, Wikileaks and their ilk:

Describing the rise of the group from its beginnings on internet picture message board 4chan, via campaigns against the Church of Scientology and, more recently, in support of whistle-blowing website Wikileaks, the report continues: “Today, the ad hoc international group of hackers and activists is said to have thousands of operatives and has no set rules or membership.”

The report goes on to lay out a stark warning to the group’s nameless participants:

“It remains to be seen how much time Anonymous has for pursuing such paths. The longer these attacks persist the more likely countermeasures will be developed, implemented, the groups will be infiltrated and perpetrators persecuted.”

Well, good luck with that, folks. If you thought trying to tame countries full of warring factions whose only common ground was a desire to get shot of the meddling infidels was no picnic, declaring war on the fluid alliances and ad-hocracies of the intertubes is going to be a long and frustrating game of whack-a-mole which, I fully suspect, you have no chance of winning. After all, Anonymous doesn’t have anything you can aim a missile at, does it?


This is my genome. There are many others like it, but this one is mine.

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2011

With the increasing difficulty of getting people to actually sign up for military service in the first place, you’d think the Pentagon would make more of an effort to not treat its soldiery as disposable meatbags. Or at least I’d think that… which is one more reason to add to the list of reasons that I’m not a five-star general, I guess.

Aaaaaanyway, here’s the skinny on a Pentagon report that recommends the Department of Defense get some more mileage out of their human resources by collecting and sequencing the DNA of their soldiers en masse [via grinding.be]:

According to the report, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Veteran’s Administration (VA) “may be uniquely positioned to make great advances in this space. DoD has a large population of possible participants that can provide quality information on phenotype and the necessary DNA samples. The VA has enormous reach-back potential, wherein archived medical records and DNA samples could allow immediate longitudinal studies to be conducted.”

Specifically, the report recommends that the Pentagon begin collecting sequencing soldiers’ DNA for “diagnostic and predictive applications.” It recommends that the military begin seeking correlations between soldiers’ genotypes and phenotypes (outward characteristics) “of relevance to the military” in order to correlate the two. And the report says — without offering details — that both “offensive and defensive military operations” could be affected.

That HuffPo piece leads off with the privacy angle, and wanders onto the more interesting (if potentially nasty) territory of promotional assessment based on genetic factors – a little like like a version of Gattaca where your perfection entitles you to use bigger and better guns. (Or, if you’re lucky, a job in the generals’ tent instead of the trenches.) More interesting still is the news that the DoD already has over 3 million DNA samples on file…

HuffPo being HuffPo, the piece ends with a blustering condemnation of the report:

Soldiers, having signed away many of their rights upon enlistment, should not be used for research that would not otherwise comport with our values, just because they are conveniently available.

Our enormous military establishment is a whole world unto itself, and there is no good reason why that world should depart from the standards that Congress so definitively banned in the rest of the employment world. Congress should prohibit the military from spending money on sequencing individual soldiers’ genomes (without individualized medical or forensic cause) or carrying out large-scale research on soldiers’ DNA.

Yeah, good luck with that. Frankly, I’d have thought a cheaper and more effective option for selecting the optimum soldierly phenotypes would be taking a more honest approach at the recruitment screening phase…


Four-legged bomb detectors still top dog

Paul Raven @ 22-10-2010

After research and development to the tune of US$19bn, the Pentagon concludes that nothing detects bombs more effectively than a well-trained dog; Uxo would be proud.

Despite a slew of bomb-finding gagdets, the American military only locates about 50 percent of the improvised explosives planted in Afghanistan and Iraq. But that number jumps to 80 percent when U.S. and Afghan patrols take dogs along for a sniff-heavy walk.

Technology isn’t the answer to every problem… unless that problem is “how can we squander billions of dollars that could be better used in other ways”, I suppose.


Cyborg bugs and locust flight simulators

Paul Raven @ 28-09-2009

We seem to be on an insect tip here at the moment, so entomophobes may want to click away until tomorrow. This stuff’s even creepier than software ants, too – via grinding.be (and many other places) comes video footage of the Pentagon’s latest experiments toward remote-controlling the flight of beetles with embedded hardware:

That’s more than a little unsettling, and I’m not usually bothered by insects. More details over at Wired‘s Danger Room blog.

But why build hardware into fragile real bugs when you could just build fully robotic critters? Obviously you’ll need to suss out the mechanics of their ability to fly, first… so you’re going to need a locust flight simulator like the one developed by a fellow called Adrian Thomas.

The simulator could be a big step forward for the many teams around the world who are designing robotic insects, mainly for military purposes, though Thomas expects them to have a massive role as toys, too. “Imagine sitting in your living room doing aerial combat with radio-controlled dragonflies. Everybody would love that,” he says.

Hmm. I think most folk would far prefer to have all insect combat confined to entirely virtual spaces, at least within the home. And by the time these proposed toy insects make it to the marketplace, you probably won’t need to actually pilot them yourself – after all, you can already build your own self-piloting and fully autonomous GPS-enabled UAV without needing access to a Pentagon-sized budget.


The boys in the bubble – why the Pentagon doesn’t get the web

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2009

The PentagonLike it or loathe it, there’s no escaping the fact that we live in a mediated world; even developing nations are becoming rapidly connected to two-way communications networks that are changing their perceptions and enabling new forms of interaction and collaboration – whether it be for good or evil. [image by randomduck]

The new world stage is digital; to be a player in the game, your pieces need to move in the mediasphere. Which is why John Robb sees the Pentagon’s insistence on sealing itself away from that mediasphere as a form of institutional suicide:

Bathed in a world view dominated by deprecated cold war logic/secrecy, it is in the process of trying to create an impervious bubble to shield itself from the very environment within which it is expected to fight. This can be seen in everything from a growing plethora of buildings that bar any and all communication devices to the blocking of Web sites that contain dangerous ideas.

[…]

So, in essence — by blocking access, hyping the threat posed by Chinese citizen hackers, and locking down facilities — the US military is self-inflicting grand strategic failure on itself. US servicemen are now being increasingly reduced to a level of isolation on par with an immunologically suppressed “bubble boy.”

Another approach is for the US military to learn to learn live in this media sphere. To leverage it and operate within it on a level that befits the trust and treasure we routinely imbue it with.

Avoiding it, by claiming it is too tough an environment for the US military to operate, is a path to complete obsolescence.

He’s got a point, there. After all, it’s not as if the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts haven’t demonstrated that fourth generation warfare is a struggle for more traditional Western war-machines… and the internet and mobile communications are far more ubiquitous and affordable now than they were five years ago.

Robb’s mention of Cold War thinking is very telling, too –  I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the increasing prevalence of Red Menace news stories, predominantly focussing on China but taking in the former Soviet states as well. Geography is a dead scene; clinging to the old system of monolithic states as ideological opponents is a sort of wishful thinking that, at best, invites your own decline into irrelevance.