Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Cyber warfare

In The Information Bomb (Verso, 2005, p. 62), Paul Virilio says the following: “ ‘He who knows everything fears nothing,’ claimed Joseph Paul Goebbels not so long ago. From now on, with the putting into orbit of a new kind of panoptical control, he who sees everything – or almost everything – will have nothing more to fear from his immediate competitors. You will, in fact, understand nothing of the information revolution if you are unable to divine that it ushers in, in purely cybernetic fashion, the revolution of generalized snooping.”

If one considers that this book appeared in French in 1998, it says a lot for Virilio’s acute sense of the connection between technological and social change. I have written on the significance of Virilio’s work for understanding the Wikileaks phenomenon on this site before and the similarity between the revelations by Wikileaks at the time, and the Snowden saga unfolding at present, will not escape many people.

When I returned to Virilio’s text today something else struck me, however – not just his astonishing clairvoyance in anticipating an era of “generalized snooping”, but something more serious, albeit related. In the earlier post I quoted Virilio as saying (p. 63): “After the first bomb, the atom bomb, which was capable of using the energy of radioactivity to smash matter, the spectre of a second bomb is looming at the end of this millennium. This is the information bomb, capable of using the interactivity of information to wreck the peace between nations.”

A few pages further (p. 67), after elaborating on “economic warfare” disguised as “the greatest freedom of communication”, on interactive advertising, “optical snooping” via surveillance cameras, and on “temporal compression” through advanced technological devices, he remarks: “The smaller the world becomes as a result of the relativistic effect of telecommunications, the more violently situations are concentrated, with the risk of an economic and social crash that would merely be the extension of the visual crash of this ‘market of the visible’, in which the virtual bubble of the (interconnected) financial markets is never any other than the inevitable consequence of that visual bubble of a politics which has become both panoptical and cybernetic.”

But politics is, as Foucault observed (reversing Von Clausewitz’s famous dictum), the continuation of war by different means. It should therefore surprise no one that cyber warfare (a metonymy for cyber politics and cyber snooping) is today considered a likely mode of outright international conflict. So much so that a simulated cyber attack has been planned for June 28 (2013) in the US, with 40 companies ranging from the Federal Reserve and Bank of America to the Securities and Exchange Commission participating. The aim is (as with most drills) to prepare for the real McCoy, if and when it comes, by testing various courses of evasive action or defence options.

Seen against the backdrop of the recent whistle-blowing news about the US National Security Agency spying on individuals by accessing their electronic communications with the cooperation of companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook, this may seem ironic – the establishment preparing to defend itself against cyber attacks or cyber snooping, while arrogating to itself the right to do so with impunity. Unfortunately, however, ordinary citizens would also suffer if such cyber attacks were to be carried out. Consider the following list of examples of cyber warfare provided by Margaret Rouse three years ago already:

• “In 1998, the United States hacked into Serbia’s air defence system to compromise air traffic control and facilitate the bombing of Serbian targets.
• In 2007, in Estonia, a botnet of over a million computers brought down government, business and media websites across the country. The attack was suspected to have originated in Russia, motivated by political tension between the two countries.
• Also in 2007, an unknown foreign party hacked into high tech and military agencies in the United States and downloaded terabytes of information.
• In 2009, a cyber-spy network called “GhostNet” accessed confidential information belonging to both governmental and private organisations in over 100 countries around the world. GhostNet was reported to originate in China, although that country denied responsibility.”

These examples clearly illustrate that cyber shenanigans are not restricted to the cyber-sphere of the internet in their effects; far from it. Virilio’s foresight regarding the crashes that could conceivably result from “cybernetic politics” (a mode of war, in Foucault’s view) is vindicated by the fact that the economies, and therefore the social life of entire countries could be brought to a standstill by “successful” cyber attacks on various interlinked networks. Small wonder that, since about 2010, the threat of cyber attacks on US communications networks has been regarded as potentially “crippling” by many security “experts”, and more recently as a more serious menace than “terrorism” in the usual sense.

There is a growing awareness of the cyber-domain being the probable terrain for a more serious kind of “warfare” than the low-level kind which has been going on for some time. The fact that texts have already been published on this topic is symptomatic of this awareness. These include Richard Clarke’s Cyber War as well as Jeffrey Carr’s Inside Cyber Warfare, where (according to Rouse), he tellingly compares the internet’s “enabling potential” to the handgun’s, which has been dubbed “the great equaliser”. What this means is that anyone – from individuals to governments and corporations – can launch a cyber attack on anyone else, and it should not be surprising that virtually every country and corporation in the world is aware of this.

How else could one explain Iran’s claim that it has one of the biggest “cyber-armies” in the world, information that China hopes to win “information wars” by mid-21st century, and that countries such as the UK and the US, Russia, North Korea and Israel are all preparing for the eventuality of cyber war?

Arguably, it has been under way for some time; according to some reports, a country like Israel has to defend itself against as many as 100 cyber attacks a day. Not only the writings of Virilio in the 90s alerted one to the likelihood of this happening; Manuel Castells’ work on The Rise of the Network Society (first edition 1996) similarly pointed in this direction with his concept of the “space of flows” as the dominant spatial mode today.

This concept encapsulates every aspect of contemporary social, cultural, economic and political exchanges – which means, of course, war as well. Just think: with the exception of small pockets of indigenous cultural groups scattered around the world, the entire globe’s informationalised economy (the basis for social existence in its present, but not necessarily future, form) is dependent on computer networks. If you doubt this, recall the frustration experienced when “the network is down” at the bank, and you cannot do the transactions you have to do.

In sum, whether we like it or not, the very same technology that has enabled one the luxury of quasi-instantaneous communication worldwide, comes at a price. It is no accident that it was originally developed by and for the US military. Like all technology, it is a double-edged sword, or rather, a “pharmakon” – simultaneously cure and poison.

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    • The Critical Cynic

      Ah well Bert, that’s the problem with having too clear an understanding of what is taking place, but hey, you can always sing along with us to that old REM classic…
      “its the end of the world as we know it….”

    • Maria

      Critical Cynic, your comment makes me think of the way Kubrick’s (and Peter Sellars’) classic film, Dr Strangelove, ends, with an over-zealous B-52 bomber pilot sitting astride a nuclear bomb as it leaves the bomb bay, shouting Yaa – Hoo! as Vera Lynn’s nostalgia-inducing voice sings in the background: “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but we’ll meet again, some sunny day….”

      And of Einstein’s reported answer, after he had said that the 3rd WW would probably be fought with nuclear weapons, to the question, “and the 4th?” He said: “With sticks and stones!” It all depends on whether a cyber war would initiate a mutual bombardment with nuclear warheads, of course…

    • Gary Koekemoer

      @ Bert, the greatest threat of the internet is not cyber attacks, but information overload. We are faced with so much information, that to cope we deliberately dumb down or become immune to the messages within that information. We have so much information about how the planet is declining, how governments ignore the electorate, how vested interests reign, that a kind of learned helplessness sets in and we switch across to the Kardashians where “yummy lunch with my BFF” is the hot topic. Banks losing my money couldn’t be worse punishment…

    • Miss O

      At first I thought you were going to comment on the issue raised by Snowden which is really a non-issue considering that powerful countries have always spied on or hacked into each other’s systems. Even the small fish hack into the Big Fish;s systems. The cyber-war has been threatening to erupt for a while now.

    • Trevor

      It might be a shaky solace to hope that cyber-war, at its best, could pre-empt the full-scale ‘absolute’ kind, or even Clausewitz’s more restrained and circumscribed ‘real’ war. But certainly the capacity to achieve devastating damage is well within the range of cyber arsenals. As with a ‘cold war,’ I suspect that the (cyber) victims will be largely the most vulnerable civilian life.

      Further, is one always able to identify the origin of the cyber attack, a condition for a large scale face-off? I just don’t know enough about the subject.

      The concern about nuclear warfare was the madcap, irrational, renegade leader who decided to ‘push the button.’ While one might regard a cyber bomb as (arguably) less catastrophic, there seem far, far more potential button-pushers out there now when it comes to launching multiple cyber warheads. Motives and reasons may range from complex political agenda’s, acts of terrorism, indigestion, or a bit of disinterested entertainment.

    • Udo

      It seems as if the producers of the recent James Bond product placement info-movie, SKYFALL, agree with you. Remember the scene where the new Q tells Bond that he could wreak more destruction through his laptop (and the internet, of course) than Bond could with his gun? Another case of the Hegelian dialectic here? Fictional tech (in Neuromancer and Count Zero, for example) > Technology in fact (ARPANET morphing into the internet) > SKYFALL (and a host of other movies like THE NET)…And so it goes, as “Everybody knows” (Leonard Cohen)…

    • Bert

      Udo, it seems as if communications theorists across the globe also agree with me – at the IAMCR international conference here in Dublin, Ireland, one of the keynote speakers this morning addressed what she saw as ‘another’ crisis looming in global space, namely a cyber warfare crisis. She drew on some of the same sources I have used here, and interestingly, condemned the way in which governments are in the process of undermining democracy in their cyber-espionage (PRISM, etc.). Ironic, isn’t it – in an effort to improve ‘security’ (presumably to protect democracy), they are gnawing away at the very foundations of democracy itself!