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Cyberwarfare (Part 1)

Helmut Sorge | Posted : December 31, 2018


He does not want to be emperor. Certainly not like Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders in human history. Triumph in Jena and Austerlitz, defeat in the battle of Trafalgar, exiled by the British to a remote island named St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Bill Gates is part of history himself, a symbol of the computer age, the digital revolution, the second upheaval after the Industrial Revolution to touch the globe. He was one of the genial pioneers helping to wire the world. The co-founder of Microsoft, computer genius, without equal or university degree to prove his breathtaking inspirations, is fascinated by Napoleon and did read most of the biographies, but “not all thousand” written about the Corsican, who reigned from 1804 to 1814.Gates: “At least they left the emperor a horse on his island prison to ride around all day.”

Grandeur was never part of Gate’s personality, although he became the youngest multi-billionaire in American history. When I met him for an hour or so for an interview in Munich, Germany, 25 years ago, he was flying economy class, since [as he explained] “I am not really bulky and of small size I find enough space to be comfortable.” Before I could challenge him as a miser and go into a discussion on the phenomenology of his spirit, he answered: “Before you start crying, I admit that on vacation trips I sometimes fly first class.” His friend and neighbor in Medina (near Seattle, Washington State) Jeff Bezos, the Amazon owner, worth 150 billion dollars these days, paid 225 million in cash for the purchase of the legendary Washington Post, but was driving --for long time -- a Honda Accord built in 1996. When I met the founder of “Microsystems,” Andreas von Bechtolsheim , some years ago in Silicon Valley to, discuss his involvement in my book project “Ab nach Amerika”(Go, let’s leave for America), the German multi-billionaire arrived to our meeting in a battered BMW and carried his documents in a rucksack. The tall and thin Bavarian was a charming nerd, but his office, no paintings at the wall, no flowers on the table, no coffee machine visible, had the charm of a goldfish bowl without fish or water. The only costly item in the noble Bechtolsheim’s attire were his shoes, German comfort sandals made by Birkenstock.

Bill Gates showed no signs of eccentricity nor capricious behavior, not ebullient, but witty and modest. He did not touch the lobster tails offered, nor champagne, but nibbled on some raw carrots, and drank mineral water without bubbles. He mentioned his fascination for the game of bridge and Napoleon and then went into his vision of the digital age. Computers, which would be present in all households, represents a world becoming more democratic with equality and a better health care service and education for all, since the poor farmer in Kenya and the favela dwellers in Rio de Janeiro would be connected to culture and wisdom. His product would support humanity to live a better life. Fear of abuse, the world controlled by evil powers, sliding into Orwellian realities, is big brother watching you? The computer would not allow any more intrusion into privacy than the use of a credit cards or the cell phone, argued Gates, where somewhere someone knows where you went, what you did buy and whom you called: "We will make sure privacy will be protected." A vision of 1993.


The pioneer did not mention worms or polymorphic viruses, malicious rootkits, infected files, memory injection, keyboard overlays, acoustic signatures, phishing attacks, Trojan horses, logic bombs, and we did not debate cyberwar, cyber espionage, trolls, the end of illusions (replaced by fear these days), the fear of an unknown future, the uncontrollable cyberspace, the uncontrolled technology -- which is escaping bureaucratic discipline, existing largely lawless, and used to manipulate elections and threaten our democracies. Bill Gates did predict artificial intelligence, the path into an unknown, beyond robots, beyond the imaginations of science fiction writers. Robots, brain equipped, possibly snoring monsters, did not seem to scare him. Welcome to the Wild West.

25 years later, the Microsoft genius is driving a Porsche, has given up his economy class seat and instead takes off in his 19-seater Bombardier BD 700 Global Express, bought for 40 million. Living in a 125 million dollar dwelling, [Gates is now] playing bridge with Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffet, who happen to be among the wealthiest persons on this earth as well, almost 90 billion dollars for Buffett, while Bezos has to manage with 150 billion, which makes the self-declared billionaire Donald Trump look, almost, poor. In the meantime, Andreas von Bechtolsheim reduced his name to Andy Bechtolsheim and added a few billions to his private account, now estimated at seven billion, bought a splendid property in the fashionable ski resort Aspen, without looking at the real estate. No, he watched a video on his cell phone, and since the seller was a trusted colleague, he did write a check, eight, ten million dollars. Peanuts in this world of Silicon Valley, which does, despite the irritating depression on Wall Street, not count in millions anymore, but billions, and buys wine offered in Paolo Alto or nearby San Francisco restaurants for 1,000 dollars a bottle without complaining about one zero added accidentally to the bill. The Amazon owner apparently did not change his taste, he still enjoys exotic foods: for breakfast octopus and roasted iguana, a large lizard at home in tropical America. 


A quarter a century after I met Gates, the trivial news of big spenders may amuse the gossip columns or inspire start up dreamers. The truth though is bleak, the dangers of the implosion of the ever so promising internet, the end of absolute freedom seen by Gates and his fellow pioneers at Google, Facebook ,Yahoo, Twitter, Apple, who wired the world-- for the United States and other minor earthlings. The dream is threatened by Cyber war and Cyber espionage. Nuclear weapons are not secure anymore; their computer systems can be manipulated, intercontinental missiles, electronically and digitally controlled, can be unscrupulously and skillfully put onto a devastating path--without return to sanity. The indifference, yes, apathy, towards the excesses in the cyberworld, terrorism, pedophilia, pornography, fake news, manipulated elections, Russian attempts in 18 global elections before the US intrusion, are tainting the internet and its hopes, driving the digital world seemingly irrecoverably and irrefutable towards anarchy. Or, a worst case scenario--the apocalypse. “In the United States, there have long been warnings of a ‘cyber–Pearl Harbor’—a massive digital attack that would cripple the country’s critical infrastructure without a single shot being fired,” stated Michele Flournoy, former US Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and Michel Sulmeyer, Director of the Cyber Project at the Harvard Kennedy School and former director for Cyber Plans and Operations at the Pentagon, in Foreign Affairs.

The Internet, which resulted in the greatest creation of power and wealth in history, even spreading into Communist China, where the on line conglomerate Alibaba’s worth is estimated at 420 billion, the personal wealth of the founder, Jack Ma, a former tourist guide and English teacher, 40 billion. Not bad for a communist. The wealth of Jeff Bezos increased from January 2017 to 2018 by $33.6 billion, outstripping the economic development (in GDP terms) of more than 96 countries in the world. Bezos wealth is sufficient to purchase the entire stock markets of Nigeria, Hungary, Egypt, Luxemburg and Iran—figures which must provoke low salary workers slaving for Amazon worldwide. Injustice though is not limited to salaries. China is accused of theft of US intellectual properties, using official, government-related, hackers. The losses estimated by the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, announced in a 2017 report, are estimated between 225 and 600 billion dollars per year. Other global thieves: North Korea, Iran, Moscow and Beijing. North Korea agents have been accused, in 2016, of an internet attack on the central bank of Bangladesh, withdrawing tens of millions of dollars. And, two years prior, they hacked into the Sony Pictures Network, destroying its servers and leaking confidential information in retaliation for the release of “The Interview,” a comedy depicting the assassination of Korean leader Kim Jong un, Donald Trump’s best buddy.


A “digital blitzkrieg” (Greenberg, Wired, 2018) did hit the Ukraine, at war with Russia, in 2016, and ever since, in rapid, remorseless succession. “A sustained cyber assault unlike any the world has ever seen,” Greenberg described it, adding [it was] “A hacker army that systematically undermined practically every sector of the nation: media, finance, transportation, military, politics, [and] energy. Wave after wave of intrusions have deleted data, destroyed computers and in some cases paralyzed organizations most basic functions.” 

The attacker was quickly identified -- Russia. Moscow was experimenting with war, digital war. Experts seem to agree, “Russia is using the Ukraine as a cyberwar testing ground, a Laboratory for perfecting new forms of global online combat” (Greenberg, Wired, 2018). In September 2018, the “Nuclear Threat Initiative,” a group that studies nuclear menace, published a detailed report about the risks that nuclear weapons systems could be subject to cyber-attacks: “Such attacks could have catastrophic consequences including the risk that weapons could be used in response to false warnings or miscalculation” (Sanger & Broad, New York Times, 2018). Bruce G. Blair, a former missile launch control officer and now a research scholar on Science and Global security at Princeton University, warned on the risks that hacking pose to America’s nuclear arsenal. In recent years, he confirmed, the US has discovered vulnerabilities in its own systems, including a glitch, “that would have allowed hackers to cause the missiles flight guidance system to shut down, putting them out of commission or requiring days or weeks of repair” (Blair, New York Times, 2018). The expert asked: could a foreign agent launch another country’s missiles against a third country?” His answer: “We don’t know.”


“Military strategists have focused much of their attention on how online operations could affect combat outside cyberspace,” write Michael Sulmeyer and Michèle Flournoy, “[which could] give a military the ability to overcome physical distance, generate disruptive effects that can be turned off at moment’s notice, and reduce collateral damage relative to even the most sophisticated conventional ordnance” (“Battlefield Internet: A Plan for Securing Cyberspace,” 2018). For the US military though, analyzed the authors, “this represents a particular acute risk. It is so reliant on the internet that an attack on its command and control, supply, or communications networks could undermine its ability to project power overseas and leave forces disconnected and vulnerable” (Sumeyer & Flournoy, 2018). As William Lynn, then the US deputy secretary of defense, revealed in Foreign Affairs, "the Pentagon fell victim to a hacking attack undertaken by a foreign intelligence agency in 2008.The malware was eventually quarantined, but not before it made it into classified military hardware."

When the US government Accountability Office tested the Pentagon’s digital vulnerability, the results were alarming—many of the weapons or new systems “could be neutralized within hours” (Sanger & Broad, New York Times, 2018).
“The declassified review,” reported David E Sanger and William J. Broad, “painted a terrifying picture of weakness in emerging weapons from new generations of missiles, and aircrafts to prototypes of new delivery systems for nuclear weapons.” The report mentions submarines, missiles, rockets, radars, fighter jets, refueling tankers, aircraft carriers, destroyers, satellites, helicopters and electronic jammers.

“The tested weapons,” revealed Sangers & Broad, “were among a total of 86 weapon systems under development; many were penetrated either through easy-to-crack pass words, or because they had few protections against ‘insiders’ working on elements of the programs […]. The acquisition program under review included two of the three major classes of nuclear weapons delivery systems: the ‘Columbia class’ submarine and the replacement for the nations aging minutemen missiles.” The issue of weapons vulnerability has “become more urgent over past decades, [because] older weapons used by the Pentagon, some dating from the Vietnam War, almost half a century ago, were minimally dependent on computers or networks, making them literally resistant to hacking.” The government report concludes, that “today’s weapon systems are heavily computerized, which opens more attack opportunities for adversaries.” 

“Compounding the problem are the millions of lines of software that are buried in parts and subsystems creating vulnerabilities that weapon designers and contractors often do not fully grasp: Weapon systems have a wide variety of interfaces, some of which are not obvious that could be used as pathways for adversaries to access the system” (Sanger & Broad, New York Times, 2018).


US general Keith Alexander, first head of the USCYBERCO, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the computer network warfare is evolving so rapidly that there is a mismatch “between our technical capabilities to conduct operations and the governing laws and policies”(Shanker, New York Times, 2010). Cyber Command, the general declared, is “the newest global combatant and its sole mission is cyberspace, outside the traditional battlefields of land, sea, air and space.” The general listed targets, which his headquarters could be ordered to attack, including “traditional battlefield prizes”— as command and control systems at military headquarters, air defense networks and weapon systems that require computers to operate.

When is a cyber-attack an act of war? Is the attacking party clearly identified, or is it a manipulation of third parties? Many questions and not enough clear answers. Only that the national, digital infrastructure, not just the Pentagon, is under attack, as the director of National Intelligence, Don Coates stated: “The warning lights are blinking red.” 

As Sagner & Broad explain in a New York Times article: “In recent years, the Pentagon has begun to install “intrusion alarms” to warn weapon operators of signs of attacks, but the Government Accountability Office suggest that these alarms were as effective as car alarms in the streets of New York, an event so frequent, that everyone assumed it was a false alarm.” 

Already in 2009, reports surfaced that China and Russia had infiltrated the US electrical grid and left behind software programs that could be used to disrupt the system later (Siobhan Gorman, Wall Street Journal). No doubt, fear has gripped industrial firms and government agencies, vulnerable to intrusion and attack: the size of the military and civil cyber security market grew from 3.5 billion in 2004 to 120 billion in 2017. In the next three years, expert calculated, the market would rise by 12 to 15 percent, twice as fast as global defense equipment...

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