Earlier this month, several major U.S. media outlets reported that their computer systems were attacked by Chinese hackers. On Tuesday, the American cybersecurity firm Mandiant released a 60-page report linking one of the world’s most prolific computer hacking groups, known as the “comment crew,” to the Chinese government. Welcome to the age of cyberwarfare.
In case you believe that the U.S. and its industries and interests are simply the innocent victims of such attacks, think again. In conjunction with the Israelis, the United States developed computer viruses such as Flame and Stuxnet to attack Iran’s oil industry and to cause malfunctions in Iran’s nuclear enrichment equipment. These attacks are part of an advanced and ongoing U.S. cyber-collection effort against the Iranian government and its nuclear program dating back to the administration of George W. Bush and accelerated by President Obama. Iran has seemingly retaliated for these attacks by conducting cyber-espionage of its own via attacks on several large U.S.-based banks.
Some of these attacks have produced fairly extensive “collateral damage” as well. The Stuxnet virus is the most notorious example of such damage. A programming error caused the virus to escape the Natanz nuclear plant in Iran and sent it around the world via the internet, where it made its way to the computer systems of Chevron. A more worrisome fallout from the Stuxnet episode is that the virus source-code is now available online, which gives would-be hackers around the world a template from which to develop more malicious software.
Unfortunately, there has been very little public discussion in the U.S. about the use of such weapons in an offensive capacity or about the investments required to defend the country against their use by potential adversaries. The use of cyberwarfare, like drones, has serious legal, ethical, and moral implications which need to be addressed. Critics focus on many of the potential unforeseen consequences tied to their use, while advocates counter that cyberwarfare is preferable to the death and destruction of conventional or WMD warfare, costs less, and confers a comparative advantage upon the U.S. and other advanced industrial nations.