We journalists often have mixed feelings about what we report and write. Naturally, we like to see our reporting vindicated by events or other reporting. This makes us feel prescient. Still, we often feel bad, because what we’ve reported harms some group or society as a whole. That’s how I felt when I read a recent story in the Wall Street Journal headlined “Cyberwar ignites a new arms race.”
In the past, I’ve argued that — contrary to conventional wisdom — the Internet does not represent “progress,” because its benefits are vastly overshadowed by its potential for social anarchy and global conflict. So far, that hasn’t happened on a significant scale — cyberattacks have mostly involved business and government spying — but the Wall Street Journal story suggests that broader conflicts are just a matter of time.
It reports that “countries have begun to amass cyberweaponry on an unprecedented scale.” At least 29 countries “have formal military or intelligence units dedicated to offensive hacking efforts,” estimate Journal reporters Damian Paletta, Danny Yadron and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries. And 50 countries, including some of the 29, “have bought off-the-shelf hacking software.”
This cyber arms race extends well beyond obvious combatants: the United States, China, Russia, Iran and North Korea. According to the Journal, India and Pakistan “regularly hack each other’s companies and governments.” Estonia and Belarus are said to be building “defensive shields to counter Russia.” Argentina, Denmark, France and the Netherlands are also mentioned as having developed “offensive” cyberweapons.
What worries me most is not the spying — which, nevertheless, is costly, serious and embarrassing — but the potential for social disruption. Here, the Journal reports ominously, though vaguely:
“Nation states have also looked into using cyberweapons to knock out electrical grids, disable domestic airline networks, jam Internet connectivity, erase money from bank accounts and confuse radar systems, experts believe.”
Everyday life as we know it could be irreparably damaged if any of these dangers materialized. Imagine the public fears if large parts of the electric grid failed and, unlike outages from hurricanes and other natural disasters, could not be quickly or easily restored.
History is hardly reassuring. In the past, new weapon technologies — the tank, the airplane, nuclear bombs — have changed the nature of warfare and international conflict. That is almost certainly happening now, though the shape of cyberwar’s future is foggy at best.
It’s conceivable that cyberattacks could disarm traditional weapons. In a talk with reporters, says the Journal, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III favored developing computer codes that could “make an enemy air defense system go quickly blank” or have an enemy’s “radar show a thousand false targets that all look real.” But as one cyberexpert cautioned, “what we can do, we can expect done back to us.”
The United States, says the Journal, is considered by many experts to have “the most advanced [cybersecurity] operations.” But, of course, no one knows. We don’t have full knowledge of what other governments can do, just as they don’t have full knowledge of what we can do. Then there are also rogue operators, freelancers and criminals who are following their own personal, political or commercial agendas. Indeed, the difficulty in identifying the source of cyberattacks makes deterrence and retaliations harder.
The opportunities for mischief or mayhem seem vast. I hope I’m wrong.
Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.