On Tuesday, the New York Times revealed that a series of high-level computer hacks against American companies have been traced to a Chinese military unit in Shanghai.
China was quick to deny the allegations, though I suppose very few people expected them to get on TV and release an admission of guilt — perhaps laden with LOLs and cat memes. The security firm Mandiant will be releasing the full 60-page report, which highlights the Chinese military's Unit 61398 and its long history of embedding itself on American networks to absorb data, passwords, and user information.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta has often warned that America could soon be facing a massive cyber "Pearl Harbor" attack, which could cripple our country as a precursor to invasion. Many think this is an alarmist view that will help push cybersecurity legislation, but let’s look at what parts of our infrastructure could theoretically be affected by sophisticated attacks.
Our electric grids, gas lines, telecommunication towers, internet providers, financial systems, and news sources are all vulnerable to cyber attacks. Shutting these technologies down would be equivalent to vaulting most major cities back 100 years. Nuclear power plants, subway systems, train tracks, and air traffic control are also susceptible, and could cause mass death if manipulated into a loss of user control. Without food coming in, or efficient ways out, most cities could easily become desperate battlegrounds for survival. This would make for an ideal invasion platform, and China certainly has the troop numbers though luckily nowhere near a large enough navy to cross the Pacific.
Despite America’s relative isolation from the world, periodic attacks have managed to cross the oceans and land on our shores. In 1814, the British invaded and burned down the White House. In 1941, the Japanese air force executed a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor, crippling our Navy’s Pacific mobility. On September 11, terrorists hijacked several commercial flights and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon building in D.C. But we’re past the days of troops parachuting onto our shores, fighter jet battles filling the sky, or tanks rolling through our streets. The missiles that fly across international borders are virtual.
As worrying as this new age of warfare may seem, we are still a long way from a cyber World War III. The simple truth is that China has far more vested interest in stealing information from us than crippling our society. By stealing our research and development, intellectual property, and corporate data, China can accelerate their homegrown industries. We built this monster with our huge outsourcing wave several years ago, and American companies have been teaching the Chinese all about our technologies for years so that they could manufacture it cheaply for us. Their knowledge has simply grown to the point where they are willing to exploit our vulnerabilities to learn more and continue their growth. There is a massive market for knock-off American goods in China, including hilarious fake Apple stores where even the employees believe they are working for Apple.
It’s been a week since President Obama issued his executive order instructing private owners of critical infrastructure to share data on cyber attacks with government officials. This is a generalized "beefing up" of online security because the alternative of going to war over these attacks is wholly unrealistic. America and China have a symbiotic relationship they manufacture cheap commodities purchased by American companies, absorbing some of our wealth; they in turn purchase government bonds absorbing American debt; and years later, when those bonds mature, they will again have a source of revenue from the American dollar. It’s a long-term marriage, and like any husband and wife there will always be some arguing, cheating, and perhaps a fleeting fantasy of smothering the other with a pillow – but we’re in it together for the long run.
The most important thing to note is that America is not the soft target it often paints itself out to be, and certainly not on the government level. The successful STUXNET attacks against Iran’s nuclear program, charges against whistleblowers like Bradley Manning and Julian Assange, as well as prosecution of freedom of information champions like Aaron Swartz all serve to highlight America’s active involvement in hacking culture. Every nation has been trying to entice, recruit, jail, or enlist any known talent in the hacking world since the great crackdowns and round-ups of the 1990s. The hacker group "Anonymous" is probably the best example of those few computer-savvy individuals who wish to work outside of the nationally defined borders.
The future of warfare will definitely take place online to some degree. Even drones could theoretically be hacked and turned around to attack their own country. But as much as we’d like to head to our Red Dawn bunkers and shout "Wolverines!", that future is not happening any time soon.