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Will the next world war be fought on the Internet?

World War III is coming, and it's happening online.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

Posted on Dec 23, 2014   Updated on May 29, 2021, 10:16 pm CDT

As Republicans pressure President Obama to label the Sony hack as “terrorism” and news breaks that North Korea’s Internet has been “disrupted,” it’s starting to look a lot like we’re trading shots across a digital bow. The Sony hack certainly isn’t terrorism—or cyberwarfare, as some have daringly painted it—but it could be a look into a future where we fight each other with ones and zeros, not sticks and stones. The next world war may well be fought on the Internet—and the major players are likely to include the United States, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, in some configuration or another.

Within the last 100 years, the face of warfare has evolved dramatically, and rapidly. In the First World War, soldiers were dragging themselves through muddy trenches and dodging mortars. In the Second World War, V-2 rockets and atom bombs made the news—and in Russia, Italian soldiers faced off against Russian troops for the last significant cavalry charge in history. The Gulf Wars brought us long-range missiles and, ultimately, drones. Today, we’re facing an entirely different kind of battlefield and a different brand of weaponry.

Over the course of history, war has become more and more abstract, not just in terms of its aim, but the weapons used. Close-quarters fighting has grown unusual, as have battles fought over obvious and tangible resources like land. Today, wars are about politics, and the tools we use to fight them distance warriors from each other—a soldier in Arizona can command a drone strike in Pakistan, while a hacker in Russia can execute code thousands of miles from a target.

We have lost the immediacy of warfare, which, in a way, seems to make it more inevitable. Isolation from the consequences of war is a one-way ticket to boosting confidence in waging it. In the case of cyberwar, those consequences could be huge. This isn’t a matter of corporate hackings and embarrassingly leaked emails, accurately defined as “vandalism” by the Obama Administration. This is a case of oil pipeline explosions, shutdowns of power grids, nuclear reactor meltdowns, sabotage of weapons systems, and other events that could cause substantial damage, and significant fatalities.

“Cyberwar” has been thrown around in the wake of the attacks on Sony, which are not necessarily linked to North Korea at all, despite claims from the FBI and suggestions from the administration—which, notably, has failed to provide concrete proof of such arguments. This betrays a fundamental lack of understanding about what cyberwar really is, which is critical to comprehending why the next world war is likely to take place online.

The Pentagon identifies cyberwar as an event involving government actors—either members of the government itself or agents of organizations funded by the government—who use cyberspace to achieve military objectives. That can involve active attacks (manipulating power grids to cut power to vast sections of a country, say), defense (securing nuclear power plants against penetration), or exploitation (taking advantage of vulnerabilities). The Pentagon is actively involved in training U.S. soldiers in the art of cyberwar, developing long-term strategies intended to give the U.S. an advantage on the playing field of the Internet.

It’s distinct from terrorism, and it’s not the same thing as vandalism, either. Cyberwarfare is also not hacktivism, created by disruptive social groups like Anonymous: It is, very specifically, an act of government against government, intended to create military advantages. The attack on Sony might give the economy a small hit, and the result carries loaded implications for freedoms of speech in the U.S., but it wasn’t an act of war, especially if it was conducted by individuals, not a government.

A world war fought in physical space is unlikely at this juncture. As the United States has learned, painfully, land wars result in casualty numbers deemed unacceptable by citizens at home, and can involve substantial political and social implications. The U.S. is likely to be mired in the Middle East for decades—and it’s too smart to ponder similar involvement in Russia, North Korea, or China, three restless nations currently posing national security threats.

That means turning to the cyber realm, but that, too, will come at a cost—and that cost will be the likely creation of another world war. Should the United States delve into a full frontal attack on an enemy nation, that nation will likely be supported by allies—China, for example, has a vested interest in protecting North Korea. The United States, in turn, would draw upon allies in NATO as well as further afield, potentially embroiling the entire globe in a bitter digital battle that could extend over years or even decades.

Don’t mistake a cyberwar for a fake war, though—this is a prospect with very real ramifications, and it’s already happening. Nations on all sides are likely to use tools that will result in attacks like the Syrian Electronic Army’s attempts against multiple targets in 2013. The organization, believed to be supported by President Bashar al-Assad and his government, although they have officially denied it, took on any and all possible sources criticizing the Syrian regime. That same year, Iran purportedly attacked U.S. energy companies, which may have been a penetration test that could have long-term consequences—compromising a corporation is one thing, but kneecapping our energy supply is another.

Earlier this year, an attack some accuse Russia of orchestrating singled in on diplomats and embassies in former Eastern Bloc countries. With no clear profit motive, the attack clearly demonstrated an interest in gathering intelligence—exactly the kind of military advantage Russia would need in the event of more outward warfare. In Iran, Stuxnet appears to be attacking nuclear facilities, and the United States, along with Israel, may be behind it.

One of the most perturbing things about cyberwar may be the fact that it is an uncharted frontier. In the First World War, German forces rained mustard gas, phosgene, and chlorine gas down on enemy trenches, leaving soldiers gasping for air in agonizing, painful deaths—the new and distant face of warfare. In 1925, the world collectively agreed that such weapons should never be used again, creating the Geneva Protocol. Followup conventions and agreements have strengthened the global position on chemical weapons. Similarly, the Geneva Protocol bans a number of other human rights abuses in war—including torture.

Such ethics, enforced and abided by or not, don’t exist for cyberwar; like mustard gas, it’s something no one imagined until it started happening. It’s an entirely new playing field for both targets and participants alike, and in a world without ethics, anything goes. Cyberwar could create opportunities for exploiting loopholes in existing treaties and agreements, in addition to creating an entirely new landscape of horrors. Using chemical weapons is a violation of international law, but what if cyberwarfare creates a spill at a chemical facility? The use of nuclear weapons is controversial, but what about the exploitation of vulnerabilities at nuclear power plants or nuclear weapons facilities?

Cyberwar could open the world to possibilities like shutting down the power supply and record-keeping at hospitals—even though attacking hospitals, medics, and doctors is barred under international law. It would also represent an escalation of attacks on civilians, as when war is so distant, it becomes difficult if not impossible to distinguish combatants from ordinary civilians. Just as Brits feared the streets of London in the Second World War, citizens of a nation at cyberwar would have to fear every component of their lives that could possibly be exploited or manipulated through cyber means.  

This is no small worry. For better or for worse, we live in a world where a substantial percentage of our lives is overseen electronically. The financial system, the grid, the water supply, medical facilities, and more are all at the mercy of cyberattacks, which is precisely why the prospect of cyberwar is so appealing to aggressors and so terrifying to defenders.

For those at the helm, it also involves minimal investment. Weapons systems can cost billions of dollars, with constantly escalating costs as other nations develop counterattacks. Storage, transport, and deployment of such weapons is also extremely costly. For the budget-conscious military—if such a thing ever exists—cyberwarfare is the perfect opportunity to produce maximum damage with minimum spending. In fact, a country’s own weapons systems could be used against it, in what may be the most cruel and ironic attack of all.

With escalating diplomatic tensions worldwide, the question to ask ourselves isn’t if we’ll see another world war, but when—and the medium will be digital when it happens.

Photo via x-ray delta one/Flickr (CC BY-S.A. 2.0)

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*First Published: Dec 23, 2014, 11:00 am CST