Cyberwar is a frightening prospect

WHEN Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, it brought back memories of Soviet-era military conquest — a reminder of the cold war.

By (Internet (Guardian News Service))

Published: Sun 24 Aug 2008, 11:37 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

But whether by accident or design, the fight for South Ossettia appears to have given us a taste of the future as well, with Internet attacks on Georgian computer systems resulting in theories about 21st-century warfare spilling out everywhere. The BBC said the situation represented a ...virtual echo of battles being fought on the ground, while's Evgeny Morozov even enlisted as a Russian cybersoldier to see what was really happening. But while the past fortnight has seen plenty of conjecture, there's been very little hard evidence about the conflict that's taking place in cyberspace. We do know a few things, though. After the military situation escalated, some prominent Georgian websites came under attack — though right now we cannot quite be sure where the strikes came from. We also know that the Georgian government enlisted the help of the regional experts in Estonia (themselves hardly bosom pals with Russia) as well as using the might of Google as a deterrent by shifting some important government websites on to

Everything beyond this has largely been the product of rumour or chin-scratching - which, in turn, has led to some backlash. Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, is scathing about the idea that online battles can have a big role to play in war. ...It's worth remembering that in this 'cyberwar', the most serious consequence is that a website becomes temporarily inaccessible to viewers, he wrote on his blog. ...It's a war being fought with paintballs, not with live rounds. In some ways he's right to be snooty - after all, when people are dying, a blocked web connection is pretty insignificant.

But the long-term threat of online attack, particularly on countries that try to use the net to leapfrog the developmental cycles that the Western world takes for granted, is growing. Remember: if the low-cost, global-reach approach of the Internet helps governments to accelerate economic development, it also leaves them too reliant on the public system. That's a potentially perilous situation — just look at Estonia, which saw its entire banking system struck by a denial of service attack last year. As enemies probe for weakness, we're only going to see more of this in the future.

I think the real problem isn't understanding the damage a cyberwar could cause, but in grasping what it really looks like. It's an odd concept because even in these days of international terrorism, we're still used to the idea of military coordination. Instead, many of these strikes seem to be cases of so-called ...hacktivism: gangs of angry nationalists and script kiddies who launch ad hoc strikes on their ...enemies as part of a propaganda push. And the troubling thing is that this sort of collective grassroots movement — a sort of click for victory campaign - isn't the hi-tech descendant of the local militia, but the inheritor of the Internet's worst excesses.

Because while it's easy to imagine Internet conflict in terms of the wars we're used to in history — grand struggles between two opposing sides — this isn't organised conflict. In fact, it's hardly even guerrilla warfare. It, like the fringes of the Internet, is pure chaos — peopled by bullies. Indeed, the angry cybernationalists of Russia and elsewhere have less in common with their nation's armies than they do with the other griefers who make online life a misery. They're the geopolitical equivalent of the childish ...anonymous collective who swarm over messageboards and websites — a mob of untraceable louts who cause havoc for no real reason other than they can. Think of them as unruly, unhinged and unrepentant — just like the worst trolls you've encountered.

Right now we think we can understand them because they're fighting nationalist wars, when the truth is that in the future they could turn their gaze in any direction they feel like. And that, above all else, is what makes cyberwar a truly frightening prospect.

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