The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

War Fever in Cyberspace

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I came across an annoying bit of nonsense in yesterday’s Washington Post, in the Ideas@Innovations section.

We’re in trouble right off the bat because this is a newspaper writing about technology, in particular technology that doesn’t exist yet. Then, as the section describes itself,

stuxnet code

A few lines of assembler code for the Windows OS supposedly from the Stuxnet worm

it is a blog about the future. Can we all agree that no one, not even the highest-paid newspaper editor in the world, can predict the future?

It’s a pretty good headline, “Preventing a Pearl Harbor of cyberspace”

The article establishes that the military is interested in “cyberwar”, an obvious observation, and then asserts that you can search with Google to find the way to hack nuclear power plants.

Anything is possible, I suppose, but the author immediately takes cover behind Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, whose lack of background in military and spying matters has been raised before. Panetta supplied the metaphor; the Post merely ran with it.

The real problem with this story is the jingoistic hype with which it beats the drum, urging the government to go on the offense, instead of wasting its time on cyber defense.

It turns nostalgic about the glory days of the cold war and the standoff between the United States and Soviet Union known as “mutally assured destruction.”

It compares computer viruses to terrorist sleeper cells that would jump into action on command issued from far-away rogue nations. The story links to an article in the Financial Times, which is similar in tone, but maintains a bit of journalistic cool by mentioning that “sceptics argue that the dangers are talked up by those eager to be hired to help.”

And if you’re not scared yet, the story tells you that we know just what a cyber offense looks like: Stuxnet, a computer worm that mainly affected Iran’s nuclear program. Stuxnet is hailed by the story as being “the equivalent of a launching a nuclear strike”, or more luridly “the Hiroshima of cyber war.” This artful metaphor comes directly from the Atlantic, which in turn borrowed it from Vanity Fair, which quotes Eugene Kaspersky, who makes his living in the computer security business.

Do any of these insightful writers know what happened at either Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima? Do they know how many people were killed in those places? Have they given the slightest thought that if the U.S. and Israel did Stuxnet, and if Stuxnet was effective, that it delayed or prevented a weapon of mass destruction from being deployed without killing a single human being?

Of course, if some computer magic managed to slow down the machinery of war, does it make sense that it was a military operation?

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Written by theunbiasedeye

October 18, 2011 at 9:40 am

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