According to some in Washington, America will be dropping bombs and sending missiles into Syria in short order to retaliate for the country’s dictatorship and use of chemical weapons. Twenty years ago, this would not have been much of a dispute. Gassing civilians is a crime against humanity, and as in Bosnia, the West believes it has a right to prevent that kind of thing, or at least punish it.
On land, sea and air, the US and its allies out-gun any combination of powers. Most of the world’s aircraft carriers fly the stars and stripes. The US Air Force is the only aviation entity that has a greater capacity than the US Navy air wing. The US Army remains the best equipped on the planet with years of recent combat experience. The US can do what it wants in Syria just about whenever it wants. And there is little Syria can do in conventional terms to strike back. So, a Syrian counterstrike won’t be conventional.
Terrorist attacks, of course, are possible, but America has spent over a decade learning how to stop those. So, I believe the risk lies in cyberspace. While the Internet is an American invention, the US does not have a preponderance of power there. As an associate of mine who recently retired from the military said, “Cyberspace is the one battle space we don’t own.”
The Pentagon has already engaged in cyber attacks on other nations. While they won’t come right out and say it, the hackers who work for the US government in collaboration with their Israeli counterparts dropped the Stuxnet virus into Iran’s nuclear research facility and rendered some of the equipment unusable for months.
But in cyberspace, offense is easier than defense. I am confident that the Pentagon has done its best in protecting the military’s networks and data. So that isn’t where a vengeful dictator will strike. Softer targets exist that will make life inconvenient for Americans.
The soft targets are incredibly vulnerable to even the most inelegant attack. While something like Stuxnet takes immense programming talent, something as simple as a denial of service attack can render civilian targets inoperable. A denial of service takes advantage of the Maoist dictum that “quantity is a quality in itself.” If one hacker with one computer tries to access a site, it’s no big deal, but string a few million together through viruses people have opened to get rich quick in teal estate or to get handed a bazillion dollars from a Nigerian prince, and it’s easy to overwhelm the server. The only way to stop the attack is to block the senders one by one. And who has the manpower for that?
I am giving away no secrets when I say that more effective targets are America’s financial institutions, traffic systems, and air traffic control. Our power and water grids are vulnerable. Oil pipelines make great targets because if they malfunction, prices rise and there’s a visible mess. And we have done a lousy job protecting our ports since 2001 – not only physically but cybernetically too.
We had the NASDAQ shut down a few days ago and the value of equities in the US market dropped. In a world of stocks, bonds, commodity options, collateralized debt obligations, and loan default swaps, what happens if you can’t trade for a day or two? If the Syrian Electronic Army can make investors doubt whether Charles Schwab can fill orders, things begin to crumble.
I am giving away no secrets when I say that more effective targets are America’s financial institutions, traffic systems, and air traffic control. Our power and water grids are vulnerable. Oil pipelines make great targets because if they malfunction, prices will rise and there will be a visible mess. And we have done a lousy job protecting our ports since 2001 — not only physically, but cybernetically too.
The truth is that America is not invulnerable, and Osama bin Laden proved it. But he was a very old-fashioned thinker. Rather than bring down a building, the next attack may simply turn off the heat in the winter or the air conditioning in the summer.
What is dangerous about this is the fact that killing Americans is not going to be the purpose. Americans have shown that when under lethal attack, we will put up with a great deal. But if no one is dying, and the attack causes the uptown 4 train to go out of service every rush hour, most people won’t blame the hackers, but rather the MTA. Erosion of America’s faith in its institutions is the purpose of a cyber attack, not murder. Americans deal well with destruction and death. We’re not as good at putting up with inconvenience.
[ picture from James Gordon on Flickr ]