Published June 15, 2010
War is coming -- a war of ones and zeroes, that is.
The Pentagon has unveiled a Cyber Command center, designed to shield the military's 15,000 networks and more than 7 million computers from foreign hacker attacks, that will pool resources from a variety of military intelligence agencies to proactively prevent assaults.
It's a pre-emptive, all-out attack on the more than 100 foreign intelligence agencies working to penetrate American computer systems and steal U.S. weapons technology.
"America's very wealth and strength make it a target in cyberspace. And one of the pillars of that strength, our military, is at risk," said Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of USCYBERCOM (and the National Security Agency), in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The Pentagon has developed systems that monitor foreign communications to detect intrusions even before they reach American networks -- and to repel them with automated defenses once they arrive. It's pre-emptive cyberwarfare, and it's designed to protect every American military network in the world.
"The DOD [Department of Defense] must be able to operate freely and defend its resources in cyberspace," Alexander said. "So the job of the U.S. Cyber Command is to assure that the right information gets to the right user at the right time at the right level of protection."
National and military information infrastructures are heavily networked and are probed by unauthorized users more than 6 million times a day, said Alexander, who became the first U.S. CYBERCOM commander on May 21, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
The budget for all this? That's top secret.
But the specter of a massive surveillance society is causing concern in the world's computing and civil liberties communities.
"I think pro-active means that government will create capabilities to enter our homes and to penetrate our own private information sharing systems," worries Philip Giraldi, an analyst with civil liberties and pro-peace site Antiwar.com and a former intelligence officer with the CIA. "Then they'll draft legislation that will permit such intrusions, further trashing the Bill of Rights."
Others disagree. Michael Markulec, the COO of network-security company Lumeta, told FoxNews.com that the U.S. seems to be moving toward active defense of its networks based on "real-time situational awareness."
"The U.S. is no longer sitting back and waiting for adversaries to infiltrate our networks," Markulec said. "We're letting adversaries know that we view these attacks differently now, and that the U.S. will defend its cyber-interests in the same way we defend a port or an airfield."
Under previous administrations, cyber-attacks were viewed as nuisances. "Now the U.S. has clearly said that cyber-infiltrations and breaches are attacks against our national interests," said Markulec. "We're changing the rules and taking an active stance."
What Is Pre-Emptive War?
Pre-emptive cyberwar is complicated; it involves intelligence-gathering personnel as well as sophisticated computer skills, said Peter R. Stephenson, a distinguished lecturer in complex computing systems and director of the advanced computing center at military college Norwich University.
"You usually cannot prevent an attack unless you have intelligence to take pre-emptive action," said Stephenson. "You can, however, take pre-emptive action against the impact of an attack. This usually means some sort of offensive mechanism -- pre-emptive cyber-attack would be the same idea as pre-emptive kinetic attack -- kinetic meaning guns, bombs, air attacks, etc."
Added Stephenson, "We are reaching a point where kinetic warfare will be replaced with cyberwarfare. In my view, though, that's no improvement, nor is it any less frightening."
The country's oldest and newest foes are among those lining up online against the U.S., including:
* Nations in Asia and the Middle East, which have "built capabilities to execute attacks that could cause damage to our national infrastructure, or potentially sabotage military operations," according to Markulec.
* Quasi-state organizations, including "the Russian Business Unit," a group of hackers who have led cyber-attacks against the nation of Georgia and others. "It's not an actual state organization, but these groups often see what they are doing as a sort of patriot hacking," Markulec said. "They seek to execute a combination of the more command-and-control focused attacks and defacements for political statement."
* Terrorists, who are targeting power grids, financial systems and weapons systems.
The biggest of these information warrior groups is based in China, Stephenson said. "The Chinese have whole blocks of civilians trained in various aspects of information operations and information warfare," he told FoxNews.com. "That could include anything from using the Internet for propaganda to collecting and correlating open-source public information to hacking into organizations to steal proprietary information, to identity fraud to heavy hacking activities."
Justifying the War for the Web
Some experts worry that the U.S. could mistakenly target the wrong nation, incorrectly thinking it is launching a cyber-attack. Other experts note that, according to the laws of international war and self-defense, the U.S. has the right to launch a pre-emptive war online.
"The concept of pre-emption is a long-recognized right of the state to use force against another state if it believes an illegal attack is imminent," Dr. Jeffrey Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary's University School of Law, told FoxNews.com.
Self-defense is one thing, but will the rise in surveillance be worth the cost? That's another question for the experts.
"I think the fundamental issue is that increased surveillance is not the sign of a society seeking to protect itself, but an indication that society has already ceased to exist," said Phillip Blond, director of the U.K. think tank ResPublica, an adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron and author of the best-selling book Red Tory. "Over the last 30 years, we have not become more free, we have become more enmeshed in the centralizing tendencies of the state."
Many experts are very worried about the undocumented and possibly never-ending expense of such war, at a time of multitrillion-dollar deficits financed by foreigners.
"The government has proclaimed wars on drugs, poverty and crime and on terror, and has yet to win one, because as soon as the government comes in, common sense goes out the window," said Giraldi, the former CIA officer.
"Cyber-war is unneeded, bad for civil liberties, and too expensive," he said.