Living through First world cyberwar

Martin Belam

AS someone who studied history, I’ve had this lingering curiosity about how historians of the future will view our times. It is easy to imagine textbooks in a hundred years with chapters that start with Reagan and Thatcher and end with global financial crisis and called something like Western Neoliberal Consensus 1979-2008. This always makes me wonder what broader patterns we might be missing in our own lives, and I’ve come round to thinking that we might already be living through first world cyberwar – it’s just that we haven’t acknowledged or named it yet.
What might a timeline of that war look like to a future historian? Well, 2007 seems like a good bet as a starting point, with a concerted series of cyber-attacks on Estonia. These were particularly effective, because Baltic state has pushed so much of its public life online. Attacks were generally regarded to have come from Russia with state approval. That’s just one reason why I suspect cyberwarfare will provoke endless debates among historians. Cyberwarfare is clearly a front where nation states will try to gain advantage over each other and make plans for attack and defence. But, like espionage, it is a murky world where it is hard for outsiders to get an exact grasp on what is being done. In 2008 there were events that a historian might weave into a narrative of a global cyberwar, when several underwater internet cables were cut during the course of the year, interrupting internet communication and particularly affecting the Middle East. Some have argued these were accidents caused by ships dragging their anchors, but they mostly remain unsolved mysteries, with the suspicion that only state actors would have the required equipment and knowledge to target the cables. Of course, it might have just been sharks.
In 2010 the Stuxnet worm was used to attack Iran’s nuclear programme. Carried on Microsoft Windows machines, and specifically targeting software from Siemens, Stuxnet was reported to have successfully damaged the fast-spinning centrifuges used to develop nuclear material in Iran. Analysts at the time thought the computer virus so sophisticated that it must have been developed with state support – with fingers frequently pointed at the US and/or the Israelis.
Another event from 2010, the WikiLeaks American embassy cables release, which the Guardian participated in the publication of, would be irresistible for a historian to refer to in this context. It is also one of the things that makes the first world cyberwar different from conventional warfare – the mix of nation states being involved with pressure groups, whistleblowers and hackers. As well as the state apparatus, a history of this period of electronic warfare would have to name Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Anonymous and the Syrian Electronic Army as key players.
The one that historians will be unable to ignore though is the 2016 US election campaign being influenced by alleged hacked and leaked emails – and the open speculation there was an attempt to hack into election counting machines by a foreign power. It might be unprecedented, but it isn’t going to go away. Obama announced retaliation from the US and Germany is already braced for interference in its 2017 elections. You can envisage a scenario where Russia, China and the US can see a mutual benefit in de-escalating cyber-attacks between three of them, and also begin to collectively worry about cyberwarfare capabilities being developed in a range of smaller nation states. Cue a UN summit about cyberwarfare, and the development of some code of conduct, or an anti-cyberwarfare treaty that provides historians with a neat endpoint.
It isn’t, of course, that nation states would stop electronic surveillance or building up hacking capabilities, but as with most wars that don’t deliver a decisive victory, eventually they become too expensive and too disruptive to maintain. It is important to remember that the internet originally came from defence research, designed to provide communications capabilities in the event of a nuclear attack. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a hundred years it is the military purpose that historians mainly remember it for, and that we are living through the first time it is being used in anger.
— Courtesy: The Guardian

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