Bruce Schneier is one of the most respected computer security experts in the world. Any time you hear about a researcher embarrassing some enormous corporation by revealing a massive security flaw, they were inspired by Schneier’s belief in “full disclosure,” that is, if a security flaw isn’t made public, it won’t get fixed. So when this guy says the U.S. is going out and starting wars on the Internet, you should probably listen.
Schneier has two concerns, one fairly direct and one more complex. The first is pretty simple.
…we’re penetrating and damaging foreign networks for both espionage and to ready them for attack. We’re creating custom-designed Internet weapons, pre-targeted and ready to be “fired” against some piece of another country’s electronic infrastructure on a moment’s notice.
In other words, yeah, China is hacking American systems, but it’s not like the US is just passively sitting there. The military is going out and picking fights; look no further than Stuxnet and Flame, two pieces of malware that almost everyone is convinced are state-sponsored by the US and Israel.
Schneier’s second concern is, simply, what constitutes cyberwarfare? If the United States starts mapping key infrastructure points and how to destroy them in the real world, that’s considered an act of war under international law. But does doing it online consist of an act of war? Do boundaries really apply in this situation? And what happens if, say, Iran busts Israel breaching its systems, decides that’s an act of war, and takes it to the real world?
There’s a lot more at stake here than just losing your Netflix. The Obama administration is worried about state-sponsored digital attacks taking down the power grid, messing with traffic signals, and crashing financial institutions, and that’s just what they’re willing to discuss in public and what they’re concerned about happening in America. What, precisely, is America capable of doing to somebody who picks a cyberfight is an open question.
While it’s unlikely we’ll be living in Live Free Or Die Hard in the near future, it’s something to be concerned about. But, of course, nobody’s ever started a war with enormous, far-ranging real world consequences that can endure for decades out of sheer stupidity, right?