X Marks the Spot of the First Cyber War

DARPA – the government organization that brought you the Internet – is back, this time with an audacious five-year, $110 million research initiative to militarize cyberspace. Called Plan X, DARPA's plan reflects a disturbing tendency these days – the willingness of governments – including your very own U.S. government - to weaponize and militarize the Internet. The best known example of the militarization of cyberspace was Stuxnet, a computer virus engineered by America to bring Iran’s nuclear program to a halt. There have been countless others, the latest being Flame, a Stuxnet cousin that was recently discovered in the wilds of the Middle East. If anything, Plan X would accelerate the promulgation of similar types of viruses as well as develop an entirely new class of (gulp) “cyber weapon.”


When DARPA knows what it wants, it gets it. The phenomenal success of DARPA in pushing forward the innovation agenda of the military is certainly nothing to ignore. Consider DARPA's "Grand Challenge" robotic vehicle competition, which pushed the nation's foremost artificial intelligence experts to develop an all-terrain vehicle capable of driving across the Mojave desert. In the private sector, this inevitably led to the Google Driverless Car. In the military sector, it will inevitably inspire a new generation of unmanned vehicles for rough terrain war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. And that’s not all – by some accounts, DARPA is working on a whole host of game-changing innovations - harnessing the properties of lightning as the next GPS, creating metals that are light enough to rest on a dandelion, and using "green goo" from tobacco plants as a new type of vaccine. No wonder DARPA’s former head, Regina Dugan, was invited to speak at TED 2012 to the nation's leading thinkers and visionaries.

So, if we are to believe the earlier success of DARPA, it’s just a matter of time before DARPA gets the types of offensive capabilities it wants to wage the first cyber war. It’s a push that senior leaders within the military have been agitating for, concerned that our potential rivals in places like China have already stolen a march on us. The sheer size of China’s cyber-hacking initiatives are truly breathtaking – by some estimates, China’s cyber sleuths have hacked into a majority of America's largest corporations and have been found lurking around inside America’s utilities grid. That’s a disturbing thought, indeed – that as we sleep, weaponized viruses and other pieces of malware are hunting for entry points into our electric utilities and nuclear power plants. 

The centerpiece of Plan X, according to The Washington Post, would be the creation of a digital battlefield map that would plot tens of billions of nodes on the Internet and give the government a broad overview of where viruses and other malware may be massing for a potential attack, as well as identify potential soft targets and the optimal delivery paths. The ideal map would “show network connections, analyze how much capacity a particular route has for carrying a cyberweapon and suggest alternative routes according to traffic flow." Instead of developing long-range B-52 bombers armed with nukes, we are now creating a whole new class of “cyber weapon” that will deliver a payload to its target almost instantaneously.

Forget the metpahors and images of the Cold War, the brave new world of the first Cyber War is almost here. Google has already proclaimed that it will be manning the front lines, looking for signs of any state-sponsored Cyber War intrusions, while the nation’s best universities have been given the go-ahead to start producing a talent pipeline of hackers and other cyber-warriors to support the mission of Plan X. Just as George F. Kennan’s famous "X" article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1947 unofficially outlined America's strategy for winning the Cold War, DARPA’s Plan X may outline America's strategy for winning the first Cyber War.

image: Cyber Attack / Shutterstock

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