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Are We Ready for an Internet Cold War?

As the threat of a cyber war with the Chinese becomes more imminent, it’s fascinating to consider how much the early stage of this cyber war actually resembles the Cold War of the nuclear age. Instead of the threat  of nuclear warheads capable of taking out communications systems and power grids, we now have malicious code capable of taking down nuclear reactors. The cloak-and-dagger spies we once read about in Le Carré  spy novels now have their counterpart in computer security sleuths. The same way we once financed the Iran-Contra rebels, we now finance the Twitter revolutionaries in the Middle East. We once conducted Black Ops and disavowed any knowledge of them later; now we claim complete ignorance of the StuxNet virus.

But are we ready for an Internet Cold War?

Most likely, we are not. As the Pentagon prepares its rules of engagement for a cyber war, our own defense systems appear woefully inadequate. We once talked of developing Star Wars “missile shields” to keep out nuclear warheads – but what are we doing to keep out malicious code and computer viruses? What are we doing to keep other nations from messing with our national infrastructure and our communications networks? What’s our “nuclear deterrent” this time around?

At this year’s TED 2013 conference, technology visionary Danny Hillis suggested that we should already be thinking about a Plan B for the Internet — the number of cracks and gaps in today’s Internet are just too numerous, and we are just too vulnerable. In short, too much attention is being paid to protecting individual computers connected to the Internet, and not nearly as much attention is being paid to protecting the Internet itself. This point can not be emphasized enought, considering how much every facet of our lives is now connected to the Internet, everything from pumping fuel at the gas station to flying across the country on a jet. In his TED Talk, Hillis noted one example in which all flights west of the Mississippi were grounded because one router in Salt Lake City had a bug in it.

That’s just the kind of example that showcases our potential vulnerabilities if a foreign aggressor – China or Iran or North Korea – attempted to carry out a full-blown cyber attack. In April 2012, a very large percentage of traffic on the whole internet, including lot of traffic for military installations, got rerouted through China. Hillis explains:

“China Telecom says it was an honest mistake, but was it? […] We’re setting ourselves up for disaster, like we did with the financial system… What if there was an effective denial of service attack on the internet? We don’t know what would happen, and we don’t have a Plan B. We don’t have a plan for how to communicate when the Internet is in trouble.”

Compare that to what the rest of the world is doing. Just this week, the Chinese touted plans for a “next-generation” Internet that would be faster, more secure and more flexible than anything we have in the United States. Meanwhile, nations such as Iran are busy at work creating an alternative Internet they can shut down at will. Something very interesting is happening — nations around the world are starting to think of “Internet space” in the same way they once thought about “air space.” They want the ability to see what’s coming in and what’s coming out – and the ability to shoot things down. 

Maybe the Chinese next-generation Internet is just a way to accommodate the billions of new users the nation plans to bring onboard within the next few years. OK. But you can also view it from another perspective – as a sign of America’s own vulnerability in the face of a potential cyber war. The new Chinese Internet backbone includes a number of safeguards that makes it more invulnerable to the threat of malware or suspicious code. In other words, if the Chinese unleash a lot of malware on the U.S. to take out our grids, it has the potential to do a lot more damage than if the U.S. unleashes a lot of similar malware in China.

We are already fighting an Internet Cold War, we just don’t yet know it. The Internet was originally developed by the U.S. Defense Department during the Cold War as a fail-safe communications network to protect us in the event of an attack by the Soviets. Is it possible now that this same system meant to defend us in the wake of a nuclear attack on our soil could become a Trojan Horse in a cyber war fought according to entirely new means — including, of course, Trojan Horses

image: Computer Hacker / Shutterstock


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