The internet now gives those with a cause the opportunity and the tools to start a war. Starting a war between countries has traditionally been the preserve of states and governments. However, there have been exceptions, such as George Washingtons 1754 ambush of a French scouting party (an act of aggression in peacetime) that was one of the first military steps leading to the Seven Years War (1756-1763). The actions of Gordon (of Khartoum) led the British empire into an unwanted war in 1885. The start of World War One was caused by the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand by the secret Serbian nationalist Black Hand Society using the new technology of easily concealed revolvers. The sale of readily available internet based weapons for use by individuals or small groups has opened the possibility of nation states suddenly finding themselves in a war they did not expect or want.
Cyber attacks have allowed individuals and determined groups to wage psychological attacks via the internet. The idea of such psychological attacks is as old as history itself. An interesting example was the British suffragette movement that used the telephone to start a general mobilization in the early 1920s. There have already been many examples of the internet being used for spreading propaganda, threatening, spreading disinformation or jamming the web by attacking Internet Service Providers and government sites. These attacks can all cause damage and create chaos. The potential for such attacks has been accepted by the international community as the downside of a connected world.
Wikileaks publishes private, secret and classified media from anonymous sources and news leaks. The actions of an American soldier in giving over 250,000 leaked diplomatic cables to Wikileaks had international implications. The overthrow of the presidency in Tunisia has been attributed in part to a reaction against the massive corruption revealed by the leaked cables. The casual confirmation by American diplomatic staff of widespread endemic corruption in the Tunisian regime was the pebble that started the social avalanche that brought down the government. The social revolution in the Middle East cannot have been foreseen by the Wikileaks group.
The Stuxnet worm, which damaged the Iranian nuclear program by controlling the so called Scada control systems which interface between computers and machinery, has been a wake-up call. It demonstrated the possibility of individuals launching tactical attacks on civil services like electricity, water supply, government services, banking, etc. Such a successful attack could cause chaos and disorder normally associated with a major natural disaster or a war.
Strategic or mega' attacks involving very large scale actions against strategic national sites such as defense related, missile control, air-traffic control, money transfer, etc. are probably outside the scope of even large criminal organizations. However, limited tactical cyber attacks cause considerable disruption, heavy financial loss and/or political turmoil. As demonstrated by the Russian attack on Estonia in 2007, as soon as the cash points stop working, the man on the street demands retaliation.
One of the issues in cyberwarfare is working out who the aggressor actualyl is. The discovery of malware (software that could cause damage) in the U.S. power grid in April 2009 was believed to have come from China and Russia, but the proof was not conclusive. The cyber attack on Estonia was started by a Russian blogger who was upset by the removal of a Russian statue paying tribute to Soviet soldiers for driving the Nazis out of Estonia during World War II. The blogger included code for conducting a Denial of Service attack against Estonia which others apparently picked up and used. It is an open question how much of the subsequent cyber attack was sanctioned by the Russian state or whether the actions of the hackers were merely tolerated.
If a country is on the receiving end of an effective widespread cyber attack that affects the man on the street, then the pressure on a government for using the time honored tradition of military action might be overwhelming. Technically minded determined individuals or small groups now have the potential to shake the world through cyberwarfare. Of course, as demonstrated by Wikileaks, the consequences may not be to the liking of those who started it. -- John Curry