"The skillful leader subdues the enemy's troops without any
fighting; he captures their cities without laying siege to them; he
overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field."
--Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 6th century B.C.
JANUARY 17, 1998
Does the above scenario seem far-fetched? Perhaps, but talk to
military strategists studying the emerging field of information warfare,
and they'll tell you the frightening truth: Everything in this story so far
is well within the realm of technical possibility.
- A private plane collides with a 767 on approach to LAX. All 143
people on the 767 die, including movie star Jack Nicholson. Stunned
air traffic controllers watch in horror--their radar screens show the
planes approaching different runways, hundreds of feet apart. Hours
later, a passenger train from Philadelphia bound for Washington,
D.C. suddenly switches tracks and slams head-on into a northbound
freight train. Thirty-three people are killed and 86 are injured,
including Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who suffers a
- That night, seven oil refineries in Texas and Oklahoma burst into
flames after computerized flow-control mechanisms malfunction. The
scene is reminiscent of the oil refinery fires that burned out of control
during the Gulf War.
- Later that night, an electrical surge abruptly overloads switching
systems throughout New York City, plunging the city into darkness
during the winter's first sub-zero cold front. Key phone switching
centers are overloaded by millions of computer-generated calls,
knocking out phone service for the city. In the predawn hours,
widespread looting plagues New York's posh shopping districts.
- Meanwhile, thousands of Bank of America customers throughout
Northern California are unable to withdraw funds from their ATM
accounts. Tellers who check their accounts find no funds remaining.
Within hours, customers are making a run on the banks demanding
their money, but the banks refuse and shut down their computer
systems to prevent further losses.
- Later that day, a French journalist walks into CNN's Paris bureau
with "the story of the century." Using a hidden video camera, the
journalist has captured scenes of Saddam Hussein overseeing
technicians in Baghdad's computer-
cluttered "war room." An editor at CNN Paris briefly reviews the tape
and then beams it to hundreds of outlets throughout the world. The
reporter leads the story by noting that, ironically, this "virtual
invasion" began seven years to the day after the United States
opened fire on Iraq.
- The U.S. response is fast and furious. An air raid levels
Baghdad's key military and economic installations, while other air
strikes target oil pipelines and refineries. More than 12,000 civilians
are killed in the shelling, but Hussein survives. Saddam protests that
he did not order this "remote terrorism" (a new term coined by the
U.S. press) but the international community dismisses his
statements. Thousands of Iraqi citizens, enraged by their leader's
reckless actions, storm Saddam's palace. When Hussein's guards
open fire and kill dozens of their countrymen, Saddam's core of
support erodes further and he is evacuated by helicopter, seeking
refuge in Syria.
- While some celebrate Saddam's downfall, the United States and
its wired allies remain palpably shaken, their confidence badly
diminished. A genuine celebration, however, is under way in this
conflict's true war room--in Teheran. Senior Iranian leaders and a
cadre of 14 computer science Ph.D.s (11 of whom were educated at
top U.S. universities) have just executed a war against Iran's two
most-hated enemies: the United States and Iraq. Without firing a
shot, Iran has overthrown Saddam Hussein and wrought
havoc in a country thousands of miles away, a country of seemingly
far superior military might...
The United States has fallen victim to an electronic Pearl Harbor
and responded against the wrong adversary.
"All warfare is based on deception."
The potential targets of information warfare today range from
telecommunications systems and power production, to automated
banking machines and air traffic control. In short, wherever a country
links to networked computer systems, it is vulnerable to attack. "The
good guys have to protect every single one of the entry points," says
Winn Schwartau, author of Information Warfare and
Cyberterrorism. "The bad guys only have to find one hole."
The Top 10 Reasons We Shouldn't Worry About CyberWar
Martin Libicki is a senior fellow at the National Defense University,
a strategy and training center for military officers in Washington, D.C.
Libicki helped fuel a national dialogue on Information Warfare when
he penned a paper in August 1995 reporting on the touchy subject
matter. Having defined it, Libicki seems less worried about its actual
occurrence than other experts, like Schwartau (see other sidebar). In
fact, he has 10 good reasons why he doesn't lose sleep over the
prospect of infowar.
10. "It hasn't happened yet."
As Libicki says, "Our security is really crap in this country, and
nothing has happened." Since incidents tend to escalate at a
somewhat predictable rate, he believes that even a turn for the worse
wouldn't be too devastating.
9. "The law of averages is tough to break."
The law here refers to the fact that it's easier to break into a
system with an insider's help. Since the United State's computer
systems are distributed widely rather than centralized, a cyberwarrior
hoping to cause severe damage would have to enlist a lot of insiders.
If he does, he's more likely to get caught; if he doesn't, he's less
likely to succeed.
8. "Non-fatal viruses
are a booster."
We learn from each amateur attempt to hack into large systems,
especially successful ones.
7. "Someday, firewalls
We may eventually learn how to lock out intruders, rather than
leaving our back doors open, since, as Libicki points out, "There's no
such thing as a forced entry in cyberspace."
6. "Local PCs can have
viruses, as long as you keep the servers clean."
And it's possible to build semantic barriers around our servers, so
that they accept only the type of data you program them to accept.
5. "Digital signatures are
better than passwords."
The Department of Defense cannot single-handedly fend off the
specter of information warfare, "and it ought not to." Libicki believes
security needs to happen from the grass roots up, and the integration
of digital signatures in mail programs will be a big step.
4. "CD-ROMs are unerasable."
We have other options for storing and passing information besides
the fragile magnetic disk.
3. "Air makes a
Libicki recalls a scene from War Games where teen hacker
Matthew Broderick phones into a NORAD computer and kicks off a
nuclear conflict. "That's probably not the first computer I'd hang a
modem on." Or to put it another way, if you don't want hackers to
mess with your system, don't put it on the Internet.
2. "Neither snow, nor wind,
The U.S. lost $25 billion of its GNP in a blizzard last winter.
Hurricane Andrew may have cost that much, the Northridge
earthquake cost $10 billion, the S&L scandal cost $150 billion and
counting. "It takes a hell of a lot to bring the U.S. to its knees."
1. "If somebody really, really pisses us off, we can always make
the rubble bounce."
"Let's say Iran wants to bring the country to its knees. We have
other ways to convince them they might not want to do that...I don't
have to spell this out, do I?"
And what about the video in the above scenario? Clearly, it was
fabricated, using the same multimedia techniques that allowed
Natalie Cole to sing a duet with her long-dead father and that
enabled Forrest Gump to interact with JFK and LBJ.
"Today, the techniques of combining live actors with computer-
generated video graphics can easily create a virtual news conference
(or) summit meeting," says Prof. George J. Stein of the United States
Air Force Air War College. "This moves well beyond traditional
military deception, and now, perhaps, pictures will be worth a
While the United States has yet to fall victim to an electronic Pearl
Harbor, thousands of less dramatic invasions of its life support
systems have occurred. Consider:
- A Russian hacker tapped into the computers of New York's
Citibank and stole $10 million by electronically transferring the money
to banks around the world. Other hackers have stolen millions of
dollars, but banks generally
keep these infiltrations quiet to maintain public confidence in financial
- To test U.S. resistance against a cyberattack, the Defense
Information Systems Agency (DISA) in 1994 assembled a team of
hackers and, in so many words, said, "Go ahead, make our day." The
hackers snatched control of 88 percent of Pentagon computers they
attacked, and only 4 percent of the intrusions were noticed by
Defense Department computer technicians.
- And the home pages of the U.S. Department of Justice and the
CIA were hacked into in the past couple of months, causing acute
embarrassment to both agencies. "The Department of Injustice"
page, a protest against the Communications Decency Act, had
images of Hitler, a digitally altered topless Jennifer Aniston and
George Washington saying, "Move my grave to a free country." On
the CIA page, the hackers renamed the agency the "Central Stupidity
Agency.' CIA officials tried to downplay the breach by saying no
sensitive information was compromised.
- In September, hackers paralyzed a New York ISP called Panix
using a strategy that experts believe could disable just about any
service provider in the world. On Sept. 6, Panix's computers began
receiving streams of packets with phony return addresses, locking up
Panix's computers while they tried to
verify the addresses.
Also vulnerable to attack are the military's own command and
control mechanisms, which are increasingly dependent on computers
for basic operations.
"Nearly everything (the military) does--from designing weapons
and guiding missiles to paying, training, equipping and mobilizing
soldiers--depends on computer-driven civilian information networks,"
according to "Information Warfare: A Two-Edged Sword," a 1995
report from RAND, a public policy thinktank based in Santa Monica,
Calif. "About 95 percent of military communications travel over the
same phone networks used to fax a contract or to talk with a friend in
another state. American military bases are powered by the national
electric power grid. Pentagon purchases are paid for via the federal
banking network. Soldiers are transported under the guidance of
civilian rail and air traffic control systems. Each of these information
nodes represents a substantial vulnerability for the military in times of
crisis," the report states.
What's most frightening to some defense experts is that the tools
needed to wage an infowar are remarkably inexpensive and national
boundaries are penetrable to remote intrusions from thousands of
miles away. Information warfare has no front line and battlefields can
be any of the millions of points that networks allow access.
"It's the great equalizer," says futurist Alvin Toffler. To wage
information warfare "you don't have to be big and rich--that's why
poor countries are going for this faster than technically advanced
In this new game of war, the most valuable component is the
hacker. And some theorists believe hackers will become the new
mercenaries, selling their expertise to the highest bidders. During the
Gulf War, for example, a group
of Dutch hackers offered their services to disrupt U.S. military
operations for $1 million, according to Pentagon officials.
The United States, however, is not merely considering how to
defend itself from infowar attacks--it is creating its own infowar
arsenal, which may one day (or already) include microbes that eat
electronics and insulating material inside computers (similar to micro-
organisms that consume spilled oil). Another potential weapon is the
"logic bomb" which is insinuated into an enemy's computer or
weapons system and gives the perpetrator the ability to later trigger it
and erase all data within the target.
And the United States already appears to be adopting hacker-like
techniques into its intelligence operations. On Aug. 4, The Sunday
Times of London reported that system operators at the European
Parliament and European Union detected infiltrations from the C.I.A.
The presumed reason: to gather information to assist U.S. industry in
While the capability to wage an infowar is growing throughout the
world, the question is how these new forms of warfare will
revolutionize conflict. Infowar may allow the United States to
accomplish some important national security goals "without the need
forward-deployed military forces
in every corner of the planet,"
Though an infowar would be waged largely through
communications networks, "it is fundamentally not about satellites,
wires and computers," Stein says. "It is about influencing human
beings and the decisions they make."
There are military leaders who believe that infowar will spare
civilian casualties. "This is America's gift to warfare," says Admiral
William Owens, former vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Other military theorists are less sanguine. "I have a hard time
visualizing that warfare will be a video game devoid of pain," Lt.
General Jay Garner said in a published report last year.
Yet what about the ethics of waging information warfare? Do ethics
even apply to information warfare? Governments could take the more
scrupulous route and attempt to disable an adversary's missile
guidance system...or more viciously, undermine civilian
transportation and foreign financial systems.
Information attacks can have consequences that are as
unpredictable as attacks aimed at physical destruction or killing
people, says Air Force Col. Richard Szafranski. Using a "false reality"
to "unhinge a non-combatant from reality, especially when those
effects cannot be known or controlled, may be no less wrongful than
to force another into starvation or cannibalism," he says.
Whatever the future of warfare is, there's one underlying reality.
Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman said it a century ago,
"War is cruelty--you cannot refine it."