Information Warfare: October 8, 1999

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Cyber War Surfaces. The long feared cyber warfare has finally arrived. But so far it appears to be nothing more than the same kind of snooping around that malicious, or just curious, computer users have been doing for some twenty years. Yes, twenty years, for it was in 1979 that the first major consumer network (CompuServe) went on line, at the same time that private BBS's (Bulletin Board System) began to appear. Many of the people using these early systems were computer enthusiasts. The first PCs had arrived a few years before and the first generation of talented amateurs was being developed. The BBS software, like the later Internet stuff, was developed largely in the open. Weaknesses were known, and there were, then as now, always a few malicious little creeps who exploited the flaws in the systems. Even CompuServe, a system created by professionals for professionals, soon found clever amateurs traipsing around where they shouldn't be. The original idea behind CompuServe was to allow this business network to be used by consumers at night, when business customers were few. Fortunately, CompuServe did not just shot down the off-hours consumer business, but instead beefed up their system security and kept a close watch for new weaknesses. There's a lesson in that, for some two decades ago, a major online service learned how to deal with the cracker problem.

Not so today. The Internet is far larger than CompuServe and, more to the point, not under any central control. The result is that system weaknesses show up faster than everyone can find, fix and spread the word about the solutions. There is also a shortage of qualified people to run the many servers connected to the Internet. 

What has made cyber warfare visible has been the development of skills and tools to detect who the crackers were and where they were coming from. Earlier this year, when China and Taiwan were going at it over the Taiwanese independence issue, pro-Taiwanese web pages were getting trashed. The culprits were traced back to servers in Beijing. Same thing with some recent snooping in Department of Defense servers. The culprits were operating from Moscow. 

The Russians responded that they would not be so clumsy that they would get caught. The Russians blamed thrill seeking amateurs. They have a point, but the cyber attacks were also done in a quiet and unobtrusive way. The intruders were only caught because better tools and techniques are becoming available to counter the most clever cracking methods. Moreover, the Russian based attacks were all done during 9-5 (local time) and never on Russian holidays. Government employees always leave a trail. Freelancers generally work different hours, often at night local time. During the war over Kosovo, the Serbs made no secret of the local crackers they had mobilized to fight back. There was some mischief done, but no serious damage.

The reality of cyber war is real, and America is the most vulnerable nation. Many essential services, for example, are controlled via a modem connection. This is often a convenience for staff, but sometimes it's a necessity for out of the way facilities. Information is now recognized as a great source of power, and increasing amounts of data, especially military, is online. This makes the users more effective, but also makes them more vulnerable to enemy action. But America has advantages in this war. Most of the net experts in the world are Americans. And then there is the American tendency to pile on a crises situation and beat it to death. Don't underestimate this, for it is the major reason the U.S. won the Cold War, not to mention World War II, the Space Race and so on. This war will go on and on, and although most of the battles will be fought out in the shadows, occasionally bits and pieces will surface.

 


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