Cybereye | The next battlefield

For anyone who remembers duck-and-cover drills and Civil Defense shelters, today's headlines have a disturbingly familiar ring to them: Russian tanks roll into a neighboring country, the United States and Russia rattle sabers over Poland, and tensions continue in the Middle East.

This time around there is a new twist. Military aggression is accompanied by cyber aggression as hackers create a fifth column in the troubled territories of the former Soviet Union. Civil defense today means not a fallout shelter but a firewall.

Russia's invasion of Georgia apparently was preceded and accompanied by a wave of denial-of-service attacks against official Georgian Web sites, forcing some of them to move their hosting to other countries. It looks like a replay of the attacks that swamped the former Soviet state of Estonia during a dispute with Russia last year. Estonia is sharing its expertise with Georgia in the current crisis.

Cyber warfare might not be an accurate term for what is going on. We do not know that a rival state is launching the attacks, although Estonia has alleged Russia sanctioned the attacks against its infrastructure. The attacks appear to be launched from the same botnets that the organized crime groups flourishing in Russia use. Of course, that does not mean that the Russian government is not involved.

The bottom line is that cyberspace is no longer merely a theoretical front. We have been nervously getting used to this idea for some time, as the constant battering of U.S. defense networks seems to have shifted from the noise of casual hacking to systematic probing and intrusion from foreign countries. We do not know that a hostile state is behind the intrusions, but we cannot afford to assume one isn't.

The cyber front is still in its infancy ' probably similar to air warfare during World War I. Although air forces had minimal impact on the fighting and eventual outcome of that war, experts quickly recognized their potential, and rapid advances in technology and doctrine made them dominant forces in the next major conflict.

Advances in information technology are coming even more quickly, and doctrines for using it in conflicts appear to be following.

One complication in dealing with cyberattacks is that there are no clear lines between the military, commercial and entertainment worlds. Anybody can attack just about anything from anywhere. This means that cyberdefense is not only a military issue but also a law enforcement and technological issue. The breaches that expose our critical infrastructure to attack are the vulnerabilities that continue to plague common operating systems and applications. Our critical infrastructure is not much more secure than the weakest home PC.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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