War of the Worlds

Science, technology, and life.
May 29 2009 7:32 AM

War of the Worlds

The next battlefield in the evolution of warfare won't be in physical space. It'll be in cyberspace.

Today, President Obama will announce a civilian office to protect the nation's computer networks. Meanwhile, backstage, the U.S. military is preparing its own cyber-defense organization. If you haven't taken cyberwar seriously as a threat, it's time to start thinking about it. This morning's New York Times story is a good place to begin. Here are four points worth gleaning from it.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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1. Cyberspace is a new dimension of battlespace. According to the story, U.S. officials now see

cyberspace as comparable to more traditional battlefields. "We are not comfortable discussing the question of offensive cyberoperations, but we consider cyberspace a war-fighting domain," said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. "We need to be able to operate within that domain just like on any battlefield, which includes protecting our freedom of movement and preserving our capability to perform in that environment."

Wars used to be two-dimensional, confined to land and sea. Air power added a third dimension. Cyberspace adds a fourth. It has spatial properties, such as freedom of movement, but it isn't necessarily affected by events in physical space. I can invade your cyberspace and cripple your forces without controlling any other dimension of the war.

2. It defies national boundaries. As the Times notes,

the military debate over whether the Pentagon or the [National Security Agency] is best equipped to engage in offensive operations ... hinges on the question of how much control should be given to American spy agencies, since they are prohibited from acting on American soil. "It's the domestic spying problem writ large," one senior intelligence official said recently. "These attacks start in other countries, but they know no borders. So how do you fight them if you can't act both inside and outside the United States?"

Exactly. And this is just one of many puzzles created by the nonoverlap of cyberspace with physical space. How can defense and intelligence forces organized by nationality and territory patrol, hunt, and fight across computer networks that transcend such boundaries? We'll have to rethink the whole notion of domains.

3. It empowers nonstate actors. One major factor in the rise of terrorism over the last decade is the proliferation of physically destructive technology. Cyberspace multiplies that problem by allowing ubiquitous information technology to become destructive in a different way. It lowers the barriers to military entry, enabling mischief by individuals, small groups, and loose networks. According to the Times , our civilian cybersecurity office will be "responsible for coordinating private-sector and government defenses against the thousands of cyberattacks mounted against the United States—largely by hackers but sometimes by foreign governments—every day." Are the hackers less dangerous than the governments? Don't count on it. And they're certainly harder to pin down.

4. It facilitates economic destruction. The civilian office will report "to both the National Security Council and the National Economic Council" and will "protect systems that run the stock exchanges, clear global banking transactions and manage the air traffic control system," says the story. Why the focus on commerce and finance? Because that's how you bring a country to its knees in this century. It's one reason why the 9/11 terrorists targeted the World Trade Center.

To hit our financial system in physical space, al-Qaida had to get 19 guys through airport screening. And that was before we beefed up security at our airports and borders. But borders and screeners no longer protect us, because cyberspace dissolves distance.

In the old days, you needed physical reach to cripple your adversary's livelihood. It took an invasion or massive bombing to devastate his manufacturing base. An information economy enjoys no such buffer. It can be hit instantly through the computer networks that sustain it.

Over the last couple of months, we've talked about some of the incremental steps through which the physical and digital worlds are beginning to converge and blur . One is physical hyperlinks , which assign a digital incarnation to each physical object. A second is the integration of physical perception with 3-D digital maps . A third is the convergence of the phone and the Internet device with the universal remote .

Cyberwar is part of this revolution. We'd better wake up to it.