Readers share their opinions about cyberwar and cyberweapons.

What Slate Readers Think About the State of Cyberwar

What Slate Readers Think About the State of Cyberwar

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 5 2016 3:07 PM

What Slate Readers Think About the State of Cyberwar

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Slatereaders share their opinions.

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Throughout March, Future Tense focused on the question of cyberwar for our third Futurography course. Though we published articles by wide range of experts, we’re always also interested in your thoughts and opinions. We’ve written up some of your responses to our survey on the topic below, and we hope you’ll stick around as we investigate the realities of killer A.I. this month.

Most respondents to our cyberwar survey agreed that there is reason to worry about developments in the area. “Our operational lives are increasingly dependent on equipment vulnerable to some form of cyberattack,” one wrote. Another added to this that the United States is especially vulnerable, thanks to its extensive reliance on communications technologies.

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Many of these respondents, however, seemed less concerned about direct conflict between nation-states than about rogue actors. “Sooner or later some terrorist is going to … disrupt a hospital or a power plant, manipulate an auto control system, or interfere with an aircraft flight system, possibly result[ing] in deaths,” a reader suggested. Acknowledging that the risks of cyberwar are complex, another reader stressed that it is important to “protect the people[‘s] intellectual property as well as” more traditional forms of infrastructure.

Slate readers also seemed to agree that new technologies are transforming the ways we think about warfare, though they were generally split on whether this was a good thing. “Better to have a cyberwar than a real one,” a reader observed, adding that cyber conflict might help discourage the proliferation of more conventional weapons. This same reader also worried, however, that the rise of cyberwar could make life more complicated by muddying our understanding of what counts as a potential target. Others echoed this concern, as did one who wrote that cyberwar “adds levels of complication to aspects of life that weren’t there before, which adds potential latency and cost to help assure protection.”

Despite that increasing complexity, many readers proposed that we should find ways to discriminate between cyberattacks and more conventional forms of militaristic aggression. We will, one wrote, have to learn to draw lines between the two much “as we now distinguish forms of weaponry.” Others weren’t so sure: Summing up a growing sense of unease, one objected that there’s “no such thing as a ‘traditional’ conflict anymore. The ‘rules’ are constantly changing, and cyberwar is but one of those changes.” Meanwhile, another held that the false equivalence between cyberwar and older warfare might incorrectly led us to focus on death and material destruction. In such a climate, it might be harder to take actual cyberattacks seriously, especially if they don’t result in loss of life.

For some readers, the relatively benign quality of contemporary cyberwar remains its greatest selling point. Taking a stance along these lines, one described it as “a substantially bloodless way to neutralize an opponent’s war-making capabilities.” Simultaneously, others warned it lowers the threshold of participation, since its fundamentally “asymmetric nature” means that “nation-states and NGOs of all sizes can produce effective cyberwar campaigns.” But, as many others argued, where we stand on the merits of cyberwar may be less relevant than the simple fact that “It’s coming whether you like it or not.”

This article is part of the cyberwar installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on cyberwar:

Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To get the latest from Futurography in your inbox, sign up for the weekly Future Tense newsletter.

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