Is DARPA’s Scary-Sounding “Plan X” Project Just a Map of the Internet?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 28 2012 1:58 PM

Is DARPA’s Scary-Sounding “Plan X” Project Just a Map of the Internet?

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U.S. Army captain in Kuwait.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Next month, the Pentagon’s research unit DARPA will hold a brainstorming session with the private sector about the cyber-warfare project dubbed “Plan X.” Coming from the agency that gave us robotic mules, cars that drive themselves, not to mention the earliest beginnings of the Internet, an event of this scale might hold huge potential for cyber warfare technology.

As the project name may suggest, details on Plan X are scarce. But we do know that it will be on the offense, not the defense. Despite apparent involvement in Flame and Stuxnet, the U.S. has avoided any talk over taking arms in the cyberwar. But with Plan X, along with the Air Force annoucing in February that they’re looking for better technology to launch cyber attacks and gather intelligence, the times may be a’changing. Cybertech expert James Lewis told the New York Times that he sees Plan X as “operationalizing and routinizing cyberattack capabilities.”

According to the document DARPA has made available for potential vendors, the objective of Plan X is “to create revolutionary technologies for understanding, planning and managing cyberwarfare in real-time, large-scale and dynamic work environments.” The release specifies that Plan X is not meant to fund cyberweapons or technology that shows us the vulnerability of a nation’s networks.

Instead, the wish list includes the ability to visualize an enemy’s nation’s critical infrastructure: “Visualizing and interacting with large-scale cyber battlespaces. This area focuses on developing intuitive views and overall user experience. Coordinated views of the cyber battlespace will provide cyberwarfare functions of planning, operation, situational awareness and war gaming. “

In plain English—where are the dams? The power grids? DARPA is seeking a large-scale, user-friendly map of an enemy nation’s networks.

While this might be over-simplifying a serious military proxy, other media outlets have not fared much better in interpreting the DARPA-ese in the release. The Washington Post described it as “a visual representation of cyberspace that could help commanders make decisions on what to attack and how, while seeing any attacks coming from an enemy.” Fast Company deemed it “a sweet real-time visual map of large swaths of the Internet.”

In the Post article, Michael V. Hayden, a former director of both the NSA and the CIA gave us his informed take on what this map would look like—basically a game of Battleship:

“Hayden … said he can imagine a map with red dots representing enemy computers and blue dots representing American ones.”

The research program is slated to last for five years and is budgeted at $110 million. 

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Amrita Khalid is a Future Tense intern.