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?


The (international) politics of zombies

Paul Raven @ 11-02-2011

We’ve looked at possible explanations for the seemingly inexorable rise of the zombie as a pop culture signifier before: are they the American Godzilla, standing in for technology run amok which can only be defeated by frontiersman-like skills with machete and shotgun, or are they – as suggested by Futurismic‘s very own Jonathan McCalmont – a shambling metaphor for a transhuman future?

Well, here’s another take for you: via Crooked Timber, Scott McLemee reviews Theories of International Politics and Zombies by Daniel W. Drezner, which seems to suggest the fear of the zombie apocalypse is, quite simply, the fear of the geopolitical status quo:

[…] if I read him correctly, the author does seem to think that the realist paradigm in international relations theory has a special relationship with the zombie-apocalypse scenario. It rests on the intertwined principles that “anarchy is the overarching constraint of world politics” (that is, there is no “centralized, legitimate authority” able to enforce a particular order among nation-states) and that “the actors that count are those with the greatest ability to use force,” namely “states with sizable armed forces.” While nation-states possessing an advanced military-industrial complex would have a definite advantage in human-zombie combat, the balance of terror is not one-sided. The tendency of zombies to swarm is a staple of movies and fiction; it turns them into something like an army. The logic of the realist paradigm is to treat states as driven by “an innate lust for power.” Likewise, the undead “have an innate lust for human flesh.” Power and flesh alike count as scarce resources. One has an interest in preserving them both.

The realist assumes that powerful nations have — and may expect to continue to enjoy — the advantage over weaker ones in defining the world order. But the tendency of might to create its own right also benefits the zombies. They are single-minded (if that’s how to put it, since they are dead) and can create more zombies just by biting. This gives them enormous power, and that power is highly renewable. Not all realists are zombies, of course; but all zombies, by default, practice realpolitik.

[…]

“Powerful states would be more likely to withstand an army of flesh-eating ghouls,” Drezner writes. “Weaker and developing countries would be more vulnerable to zombie infestation. Whether due to realist disinterest, waning public support, bureaucratic wrangling, or the fallibility of individual decision-makers, international interventions would likely be ephemeral or imperfect. Complete eradication of the zombie menace would be extremely unlikely. The plague of the undead would join the roster of threats that disproportionately affect the poorest and weakest countries.”

A sobering conclusion. In other words, a zombie apocalypse would be terrible — but it would not really change things very much.

That book’s going straight on my wishlist… 🙂