Monday, August 18, 2008

"The new domain for conflict"

I came across two articles this morning that are very revealing. First:

The Air Force is about to suspend its controversial effort to reorganize its forces to "dominate" cyberspace. The provisional, 8,000-man Cyber Command has been ordered to stop all activities, just weeks before it was supposed to be declared operational.
“Transfers of manpower and resources, including activation and reassignment of units, shall be halted,” according to an internal e-mail obtained by Nextgov's Bob Brewin -- and confirmed by Air Force sources. Instead, the Air Force's new leadership -- including incoming Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz -- will be given time to rethink how big the command will be, and what exactly it will do.
But even if everything all was calm at the Air Force, Cyber Command's path was far from clear. At a June conference , the command's emerging leaders couldn't agree on what exactly the new unit would do. Some said the command's mission would be the  "protection and defense of the Air Force's command and control abilities." Others argued that the "mission is to control cyberspace both for attacks and defense." (The service even changed its mission statement to read, "As Airmen, it is our calling to dominate Air, Space, and Cyberspace.") Some believed the Cyber Command would only be responsible for computer networks. Others thought it'd be responsbile for every system that had anything to do with the electromagnetic spectrum -- up to and including laser weapons. 

So as the Air Force is trying to figure out what it is doing in cyberspace, the Russians are already organized and operational:

This new style of cyberwarfare — in which ordinary citizens instantly enlist their PCs to help bedevil the enemy — has caused little damage of substance, security experts say. But it affirms the untapped potential for using the Internet to cause mass confusion for political gain.

"This type of attack will form at least a part of all geopolitical conflicts from now on," predicts Steve Santorelli, director of investigations at research firm Team Cymru.

Several hours after Russia and Georgia began skirmishing over the disputed territory of South Ossetia on Aug. 8, a call to arms got posted on several pro-Russia online forums. Visitors were directed to a posting on the website, which listed Georgia government sites, including that of President Mikhail Saakashvili, as targets. Also posted: a software tool that emits a stream of nuisance requests from the user's PC to the targeted websites.
By clicking on the tool, "you volunteered to weaponize your PC and participate in a denial-of-service attack" on Georgia's Web pages, says Artem Dinaburg, a researcher at security firm Damballa. During such an attack, normal visitors to a Web page are denied access as it gets overwhelmed by nuisance requests.

Thousands of pro-Russia activists have been clicking on the tool ever since, attacking a list of pro-Georgia websites that's freshened each day, Dinaburg says. The attacks run sporadically for a few hours — as long as enough activists dedicate their PCs to the assault.

The problem isn't that governments can't be creative and competent at running various cyberspace operations, the Russians are proving that they can. The Russians are also proving that government activity and decentralized citizen activity can work together to accomplish common goals. The problem is that the various agencies and departments in the US government and both political parties are operating on outdated conceptions of the role of government. And that the vintage 20th century institutions are not capable of dealing with 21st century realities. It's possible that the Air Force's problems are theirs alone and the Army, Navy, CIA and other agencies are running competent cyberspace operations. But it is also possible that the Air Force is simply having its issues aired out in public whereas the other agencies are fumbling about outside of public scrutiny. There is a pattern here that we have also seen before in the area of strategic communication: while the Taliban, al Qaeda and others use all the new-fangled technology to wage a sophisticated propaganda campaign, we spend years holding panel discussions and publishing journal articles talking about using new-fangled technology to wage propaganda campaigns but never actually doing it. Likewise while the Air Force puts the Cyber Command on hold while it studies what to do, the Russians and Chinese are already out there doing it.

MORE from the Belmont Club:
"new modes of information combat"

China, Russia and Islamic radicalism were free to invent new modes of information combat. Both the "NET Force" and the cyber-Jihad come at a time when the American concept of public diplomacy still focused on scheduling interviews on talk shows. The true beneficiaries of revolutionary technology may be those who were free of the weight of the old.


Jay@Soob said...

Quite similar to the Chinese 50 cent group. A pisser the US isn't as willing to go open source in terms of cyber warfare as either the Chinese or the Russians. Our caution is hurting us.

phil said...

Yeah the 50 cent thing is definitely an example of this kind of thing. To me our obstacle is rooted in motivation. It is just not acceptable among large portions of our population to be motivated to act on behalf of your country (if it's America that is; for other countries it's ok). We don't need the kind of 19th century nationalism that the Chinese and Russians seem to be jonesing on. But we do need to be inspired by a vision of America that motivates us to act creatively.