Thursday, June 24, 2010

these aren't the cyberweapons you're looking for, move along

i was reading robert graham's post about how cyberwar is fiction and i found myself not quite agreeing with it.

to be sure, the concept has been overhyped a lot and had his post been exclusively about that then i would have agreed with him wholeheartedly.

additionally, had it rested on the contention that so-called cyberwar actions that have naively been attributed to nation-states were actually the work of online militias lacking official endorsement from their respective governments, i would have agreed with that too.

but as the title of his post suggests, he goes as far as to say that cyberwar, and even cyberweapons are complete fiction, and that does not ring true. i'll do my best to avoid committing an act of cyber-douchery by condoning those particular terms, but the ideas they are meant to represent are not so far beyond the scope of reality as robert suggests.

virtual weapons, or perhaps logical weapons, would be the more straightforward of the two supposed fictitious concepts. robert contends that there are no such weapons, only tools. i would counter, however, with the assertion that a tool intended to cause harm (be it physical harm, logical harm, or some combination of the two) is a weapon. followers of the malware field know all too well there's no shortage of such tools in actual existence, so such weapons are far more than just a flight of fancy or an analogy taken too far.

robert's point regarding warfare is a little more involved. he's right that the way cracking works diverges wildly from the traditional western notions of realworld warfare involving tanks and planes and overwhelming forces, but just because the west has supersized everything including the way they wage war, doesn't mean that's the only way it can be waged. war doesn't have to be mindless (get a bigger dog indeed) and banal, it can also be subtle under the right circumstances. as robert described the opportunistic nature of cracking and how that was fundamentally incompatible with the goal-oriented nature of the military, i found myself thinking about how much better it would fit with the guerrilla warfare approach. i then started to think about the (perhaps apocryphal) stories of CIA operatives fostering insurgent forces in foreign lands to help overthrow governments and install political puppets friendly to US interests. surely that would be a case of one nation waging a secret war against another (if real), and surely it's more opportunistic in it's execution than what is normally depicted in war movies and the like.

as such, it seems to me that the concepts of cyberweapons and cyberwar are not fiction, at least not with a sufficiently general definition of weapon and war. the specific terminology may be poorly chosen, and the concepts misapplied in practice, but that's not really the same as being fiction.