As senior US officials warn that cyber attacks on vital systems would be
considered "acts of war" eliciting a real world military response, one
professor at the National Defence University surmises that battles of the
future might be fought by guys hunched over keyboards in dark basements,
rather than strapping lads toting M-16s.
In light of recent cyber attacks on Google apparently launched from China, online tensions -- the possible precursors to outright conflict -- have been spreading from chat rooms, to Gmail accounts and into the meeting rooms of military decision makers in recent weeks.
"We operate in five domains: air, land, sea, outer space and cyberspace," says Dan Kuehl, a professor of information operations at the National Defence University in Washington. "An ever increasing amount of what we do has dependencies on cyberspace; a guy typing on a computer is one of the new faces of war," Kuehl told Al Jazeera, stressing that he is not speaking for the US government or his elite military university.
"A response to a cyber-incident or attack on the US would not necessarily be a cyber-response. All appropriate options would be on the table," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said recently.
Tough talk and phishing trips
One US defence official told The Wall Street Journal newspaper: "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks," in rhetoric likely aimed at China. For its part, the Chinese government categorically denied any involvement in the cyber attacks, which Google reported to the US state department and media outlets last week.
The reason for this sort of digital tough-talk is related to basic military strategy. "There is value in ambiguity," Kuehl said. "You don't want your adversary to think 'I can go up to that red line but I can't cross it'. You want them to think 'I won't do anything in the first place'," for fear of old fashioned physical reprisal.
Phishing attacks recently launched against Google's mail service targeted the personal e-mail accounts of some senior US officials, along with Chinese journalists, human rights activists and South Korea's government.
These attacks are similar in form to the scam e-mails most people receive from, say, the widow of a Nigerian millionaire who asks the user to open a message so they can claim their $14m reward for being a nice person. Once the message is opened, the victim's computer is compromised.
"This was a pretty straight forward phishing attack, other than the more sophisticated social engineering where the e-mail seems to come from someone who you know," says Richard Stiennon, the chief research analyst at IT-Harvest and author of Surviving Cyberwar, referring to recent actions against Gmail.
"The Chinese have the early advantage in executing cyber warfare. If you have a large information gathering operation, knowing even the personal data of officials can be valuable," he told Al Jazeera. If data is stolen from personal accounts it is likely dumped into massive data banks for processing, crossing referencing and analysis.
WikiLeaks documents indicate that US diplomats are concerned about China's government recruiting top hackers to launch cyber war campaigns.
"There is a strong possibility the PRC [People's Republic of China] is
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