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The politics of digital warfare

Stefan Hammond | June 6, 2012
This year there's a Summer Olympics, a European football contest, and a US presidential election.

This year there's a Summer Olympics, a European football contest, and a US presidential election. The Olympics return to London for the first time since 1948, the Euro Cup comes to Poland and Ukraine, and the US election hinges on only a few states as the USA still uses a colonial-era "electoral college" which supersedes the popular vote."

This year's Euro Cup features eastern Europe locations--while Ukraine struggles with its public political image, Poland emerges as a player within the EU. Five years ago, I visited the stadium in Warsaw--it was a derelict, overgrown open-pit with rotting bleachers. Dodgy characters offered to sell me bootleg vodka and pirated CDs. Friends told me that handguns and AK-47s were sometimes on offer.

You'll see the same stadium (considerably revamped) soon as a centerpiece for Euro Cup matches. Decades ago, Poland distanced itself from what former US president Ronald Reagan called the "evil empire" (the Soviet Union), then the entire "Iron Curtain" came crashing down suddenly as Western newscasters struggled to pronounce the words "glastnost" and "perestroika"...and the USA lost its favorite arch-enemy.

But now the Euro Cup graces the former turf of the "evil empire," and there's another presidential election Stateside. Former US chief executives could often conjure villains for the electorate--the now-kaput Soviet Union won't do. What now? What appeals to "Generation Facebook"?

What else? "Cyberwarfare." Given the rapid rise of personal-computing power, with resultant gaps in public-understanding of technology, the specter of villains lurking online--ready to crash essential systems in a concerted cyberstrike--holds more appeal than comparing Putin to Stalin.

But a new report has wrenched the cyberwarfare-angle. According to the New York Times, the Stuxnet worm (one of the more sophisticated viruses ever found in the wild) is the result of "a joint US and Israeli effort to target Iran's nuclear program." IDG journalist Jaikumar Vijayan writes that the NYT report "is sure to trigger a sharp increase in state sponsored cyberattacks against American businesses and critical infrastructure targets, security experts warn."

"Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said the revelation dramatically alters the cybersecurity landscape," wrote Vijayan. "'We are now going to be the target of massive attacks,' Paller said...'for a long time everything has been under the radar, no one was really sure that the US was practicing this kind of activity. The US has acted like it was an innocent victim' of state-sponsored attacks by other countries, he said."

The damning NYT article details some pithy moments: "'Should we shut this thing down?' Mr Obama asked, according to members of the president's national security team who were in the room."

Well, no, Mr President, that's not how properly constructed military-specification computer viruses work when they're in attack-mode. You don't hit the 'Like' button on your friend Mister Antivirus to make it all go away.


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