The Internet as a battlefield


I’ve been trying to work on this post for ages, but never seem to get it finished. The more I think about it, the more tangents I head in, so here’s a start anyway. Maybe you can add a comment to the thread.

When we, Joe Citizen think of warfare, the common picture is either soldiers, tanks and planes, or more recently terrorist attacks. Information warfare is not a topic that we think of very often.

Of course using media such as radio, print and TV have been used for decades to provide disinformation, but now that we have the Internet, there is potential for a new front that could cripple economies and cause massive disruption to life as we know it.

Last month 14 Virgin Blue flights were cancelled in Melbourne when a broken cable disrupted their computer systems, stranding thousands of passengers. A total of 48 domestic flights were cancelled as a follow on of this problem.

Periodically there are major EFTPOS failures, which can happen at the worst possible times. For example in 2005 the EFTPOS network in New Zealand broke down for 2 hours on 23rd December. The estimate was that around half a million transactions were lost on one of the busiest days for retailers in the year. Millions of dollars in transactions were lost because people don’t really carry cash any more.

In November last year Brazil and some of Venezuela lost their power. Nine of Brazil’s states were out of power, representing millions of people. Whilst many complained they couldn’t watch their favorite soap opera, traffic lights were not working, trains weren’t running and parts of the country pretty much ground to a halt.

If a country or a terrorist organisation wanted to cause chaos or in some way to a country or city in the modern world, it would be incredibly easy. In Holland a guy called Max Cornelisse has created chaos and recorded it on YouTube to show how easy it is to disrupt services we take for granted. Amongst other things he has meddled with electronic signs on freeways, opened and closed bridges over canals from his PDA, sent people running from one platform to another by controlling automated PA messages at railway stations and in this YouTube Video he controlled the autoprompter at a Dutch TV station causing confusion to the newsreaders on live TV. Unfortunately it is in Dutch, but you’ll get the idea.

This is just a guy having a little fun, but what could you do if you seriously wanted to disrupt a country or city. What chaos would you create simply by shutting down the Internet. How would your business function without the Internet? How would your community function without the Internet? Imagine no email, no Voice over IP, no web browsing, no IM, no Facebook or Twitter? No online share trading. No banking, no EFTPOS, no ATM’s and who carries cash?

That’s just for starters. I wonder how long it would take for a major city, like New York, London or Amsterdam to fall into chaos? What would happen after a day, a week, even longer?

Last week there was a story on NPR about cyber terrorism. It quoted USA Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blaire saying that “Every single day, Blair said, sensitive information is “stolen from both government and private sector networks” as criminals become increasingly more sophisticated.”

Interestingly on 16 February 2010 an event will take place in a simulated Whitehouse Situation Room which is scripted to emulate a cyber terrorist attack. Those taking part will include former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponter and former Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend, who will have to work out how to deal with it as it plays out.

This has happened shortly “after the House overwhelmingly passed The Cybersecurity Enhancement Act. Something that gives the Obama administration the power to switch off the Internet,” according to Techeye. For more on the Act, check here.

Just as a final thought for now. If you know how to defend against an attack, you also know how to initiate one. I’m not for a moment suggesting any Western power would do that, but given the right circumstances…….

I am very happy to be living in New Zealand in that respect. Although we have allowed ourselves to become very dependant on our friends and allies, not even able to fully feed ourselves if we bacame isolated.