Tue, Nov 21, 2017 - Page 9 News List

The Pandora’s box of the digital age

Few other trends pose a bigger threat to global stability than governments’ creation of cyberweapons

By Carl Bildt

Illustration: Yusha

Is the world sliding dangerously toward cyber Armageddon? Let us hope not, but let us also apprehend the threat and focus on what to do about it.

In the past year alone, a series of hacks and ransomware attacks by hostile governments and other malign actors have raised alarms about a major threat to global stability. Unfortunately, many governments are responding by developing still more cyberweapons, on the mistaken assumption that offense is the best defense.

One country after another has begun exploring options for bolstering their offensive capabilities in cyberspace, and many other countries have already done so. This is a dangerous escalation. In fact, few other trends pose a bigger threat to global stability.

Almost all societies have become heavily dependent on the Internet, the world’s most important piece of infrastructure — and also the infrastructure upon which all other infrastructure relies. The so-called Internet of Things is a misnomer; soon enough, it will be the “Internet of Everything.” And our current era is not a Fourth Industrial Revolution; it is the beginning of the digital age, and the end of the industrial age altogether.

The digital age has introduced new vulnerabilities that hackers, cybercriminals, and other malign actors are already routinely exploiting. But even more alarming is the eagerness of national governments to conduct cyberwarfare operations against one other.

We have already reached the stage at which every conflict has a cyberdimension. The US and Israel crossed the Rubicon in 2010 by launching the Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Now, there is no telling where ongoing but hidden cyberconflicts begin and end.

Things were different in the old world of nuclear weapons, which are complicated and expensive devices based on technology that only a few highly educated specialists have mastered. Cyberweapons, by contrast, are generally inexpensive to develop or acquire, and deceptively easy to use. As a result, even weak and fragile states can become significant cyberpowers.

Worse still, cyberwar technologies have been proliferating at an alarming pace. While there are extensive safeguards in place to control access to sensitive nuclear technologies and materials, there is almost nothing preventing the dissemination of malicious software code.

To understand the scale of the threat we face, look no further than the WannaCry virus that, among other things, almost shut down the British National Health Service this past May. The virus exploited a vulnerability in the Microsoft Windows operating system that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had already discovered, but did not report to Microsoft. After this information was leaked or stolen from the NSA, North Korea quickly put the ransomware to use, which should come as no surprise. In recent years, North Korea has launched numerous cyberattacks around the world, most notably against Sony Pictures, but also against many financial institutions.

Of course, North Korea is hardly an exception. Russia, China and Israel have also developed cyberweapons, which they are busy trying to implant in systems around the world. This growing threat is precisely why other countries have started talking about acquiring offensive cybercapabilities of their own: They want to have a deterrent to ward off attacks from other cyberpowers. Cybersecurity is regarded as complicated and costly, but cyberoffense is seen as inexpensive and sexy.

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