Cyber-Warfare: The New Proxy War

By David Malcolm

When listing the big changes in human society, the invention of computers and the creation of the Internet will certainly rise above all others. Never in human history has an invention made such a dramatic impact on the world we live in. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Google have become the symbols of the new digital age. The old borders and barriers have been broken down. The internet has created new freedoms, new opportunities, and new dangers.

From the moment working computers were available, many people saw that the new battles would be fought with keyboards rather than guns. As technology improved, we have placed much of our existence into billions of ones and zeros. This makes everyone a potential target for those of nefarious means. Unlike burglars who are limited in the number of homes they can rob, your computer has to deal with bots, hackers, and scammers from everywhere. They could be your next-door neighbor or they could be on the far side of the world.

It matters little who gets targeted and who escapes because, on the internet, there is no such thing as distance. This is what makes the Russian hacking of the US election terrifying for many countries. A hacker in Moscow or a bot built by Russian techies can influence international politics and disrupt Russia’s greatest rivals from the comfort of their own home. Even if the hack is traced, the hackers can’t be arrested or charged unless Russia does it themselves.

Many Western countries are already aware of the power and danger of the less-honorable members of the internet. Safeguards and firewalls can protect important institutions for a time, but no defense is unbreakable nor is it without weaknesses. An outdated system or a virus checker that hasn’t been upgraded provides an entrance. Human error tends to be the most common cause for hackers gaining access.

Russia is exploiting the freedom that the internet provides and using social media in a brilliantly cynical way. Clearly, there are some in the Kremlin who have figured out the potential of the system to change society. Trump’s surprise win is just the beginning. Russia is clearly ahead in the cyber-warfare arms race and the damage they can cause will dwarf any Cold War spy mission.

It’s not just Russia though. Terrorist groups, particularly ISIS, have mastered the technological gap that more traditional groups struggled with. Their digital caliphate has no borders or boundaries, making it almost impossible to block off access without affecting innocent lives. Thus the fatal paradox of the internet is revealed. Either everyone has access or no one does.

None of this is to say that Western countries are defenseless but it is painfully clear that much more needs to be done. The USA is already pouring millions into its own cyber-warfare section and others are quick to follow. Social media giants have pledged to do more to combat extremist and foreign interference, but their efforts must be coordinated. Without coordination or any intelligent thought process, any system will be little more than temporary patch systems, easily dodged or worked around.

Russia has taken its disruptive war against democracy to cyberspace. The West will catch up but until then, our only option to be constantly vigilant and aware. It will not be easy, but then again, that is the price of freedom.

I'm a historian based in the UK who likes jumping from one thought to next. I love to learn new things and explore other ideas.

One comment

  1. This is why I like Richard Clarke, former National Security Advisor. I got fed up with him being a Cassandra and nobody really looking deeper at the infrastructure issues he said needed addressing. it seems that the discussion only starts after he publishes a new book…or maybe not starts, but certainly gets more credibility and actual plans start to take place. I think our government and military leaders have gotten so arrogant (in the upper echelons, that is) regarding our security. Yes, geography helps us out in conventional warfare, but this is the 21st century and what’s “conventional” tends to change. (PS–I have his book on Cyber Warfare but haven’t read it yet, but I will soon. So far he’s saying the right things, though…again.)

    Yes, our military can (and does) seem to go anywhere, anytime still…but when I first read about drones and the predator drones in combat zones, I knew something bad was going to come of this. The first one with the tech writes the rules of how to use it in warfare (so to speak). If our leaders keep shrugging off civilian deaths as “collateral damage” with these machines, and some terrorists or other nations get their hands on some and use them and kill civilians here, will our leaders give them that leeway? Hell no–it’s the hypocrisy that gets me the worst. We act like nobody else is ever going to get the tech. I bet ISIS has quite a few already, whether some have been shot down, smuggled in, or made by them. They’ll be used against us soon, and we’re idiots if we think they won’t be.

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