Karl Marx proclaimed that a “spectre was haunting Europe”. But it took decades before the spectre of socialism became a reality in the form of the Soviet Union. Today, a cyber spectre haunts us. We better be alert to it because we do not have decades to wait.
Cyber war, computer hacking and the information revolution are well worn and even hackneyed terms. The cyber attack against Estonia several years ago demonstrated how damaging hacking can be regardless of the source. In the US, the Pentagon reports large numbers of daily attempts to hack into or interfere with the Department of Defence’s computer and information systems. Conceivably, a 10-year-old computer whiz can be as or more destructive than the government’s best expert in employing cyberspace for sport, gain or ideological purposes. So, what is new and what should concern us? WikiLeaks sounds the alarm.
Pointedly coincident with the 69th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack against US forces stationed at Pearl Harbour was WikiLeaks’ release of some 250,000 classified and sensitive US diplomatic cables from around the world. Months ago, WikiLeaks dumped tens of thousands of official US communications on Iraq and Afghanistan. Predictably, a media firestorm was provoked by the latest releases, especially in Pakistan where real political damage was done by disclosing candid and often unfavourable assessments of its government officials.
Yet, this spectre could be a 21st century equivalent of Pearl Harbour in which the strategic centre of gravity is not battleship row but the vulnerability of all governments to information and weapons of choice, not bombers and torpedo planes but the Internet and cyber space.
This particular cyber onslaught used information as a weapon of media destruction. Stunningly, subsequent retaliation by an independent network of as many as 10,000 hackers ideologically disposed to help WikiLeaks against servers, operated by major corporations that halted access to these releases, occurred. The combination could be the precursor of 21st century informational global conflicts and a jump to fifth or sixth generational warfare in which a huge corpus of invisible allies await the opportunity to join a cyber insurgency as Internet warriors.
Suppose, for example, a WikiLeaks copycat attack went after national electrical grids, the banking system, air traffic control or some other weakness. Then, suppose that attack was joined by anonymous hackers in the thousands compounding the damage. Wow!
These leaks illuminate and magnify the hugely difficult issues inherent in countering cyber warfare as a political weapon and in knowing how to react, prevent, regulate, hold accountable and indeed know when the use of information constitutes an act of war or a crime punishable under domestic or international law. If the US has to rely on the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute WikiLeaks, clearly we are far from prepared to deal with the cyber challenges of the 21st century.
The latest releases were far more revealing, embarrassing and indeed potentially dangerous in exposing individual identities and secret military information on sensitive and vulnerable installations than the earlier ones. Further releases are likely. WikiLeaks and its fellow travellers assert their aim is not to punish but a more benign and benighted goal to expose the perfidy of governments.
My colleague and close friend, Arnaud de Borchgrave, has already done important investigative work in analysing the history and intent of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange to harm the US arising from a left wing orientation and intense dislike of American democracy. The alleged source of these leaks, a US Army private, leaves observers dumbfounded as to how American security could be so incompetent as to permit these thefts in the first place and then fail to realise that they had happened.
Of course, overreaction is possible in predicting future consequences and in attempting to punish Mr Assange and his comrades. On the other hand, as the war has shifted from armies, navies and air forces battling like adversaries to what we are seeing in Afghanistan, the interconnectivity and dependence of so much global commerce and interaction on electrons and the Internet produce potential vulnerabilities in the extreme. So far, while prodigious amounts of rhetoric have described these potential dangers, little progress has been made in producing a strategic, legal and political framework for dealing with the likes of Mr Assange and even more pernicious characters such as cyber savvy terrorists and religious extremists.
WikiLeaks has been a setback for the US and other governments. The worst of WikiLeaks may be over for Pakistan. Governments will recover from the exposure of candid and sensitive exchanges among senior officials about opposite numbers. But taking down the power grid or financial system is a far different matter. Www.worldwar5.0 is the new danger. Who will rise to meet it is the challenge, not merely for the US but for all democracies, including Pakistan.