The Problem with Using the Cold War Metaphor to Describe Cyberspace Risks
Nice essay on the problems with talking about cyberspace risks using “Cold War” metaphors:
The problem with threat inflation and misapplied history is that there are extremely serious risks, but also manageable responses, from which they steer us away. Massive, simultaneous, all-encompassing cyberattacks on the power grid, the banking system, transportation networks, etc. along the lines of a Cold War first strike or what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called the “next Pearl Harbor” (another overused and ill-suited analogy) would certainly have major consequences, but they also remain completely theoretical, and the nation would recover. In the meantime, a real national security danger is being ignored: the combination of online crime and espionage that’s gradually undermining our finances, our know-how and our entrepreneurial edge. While would-be cyber Cold Warriors stare at the sky and wait for it to fall, they’re getting their wallets stolen and their offices robbed.
If the most apt parallel is not the Cold War, then what are some alternatives we could turn to for guidance, especially when it comes to the problem of building up international cooperation in this space? Cybersecurity’s parallels, and some of its solutions, lie more in the 1840s and ’50s than they do in the 1940s and ’50s.
Much like the Internet is becoming today, in centuries past the sea was a primary domain of commerce and communication upon which no one single actor could claim complete control. What is notable is that the actors that related to maritime security and war at sea back then parallel many of the situations on our networks today. They scaled from individual pirates to state fleets with a global presence like the British Navy. In between were state-sanctioned pirates, or privateers. Much like today’s “patriotic hackers” (or NSA contractors), these forces were used both to augment traditional military forces and to add challenges of attribution to those trying to defend far-flung maritime assets. In the Golden Age of privateering, an attacker could quickly shift identity and locale, often taking advantage of third-party harbors with loose local laws. The actions that attacker might take ranged from trade blockades (akin to a denial of service) to theft and hijacking to actual assaults on military assets or underlying economic infrastructure to great effect.
Ross Anderson is the first person I heard comparing today’s cybercrime threats to global piracy in the 19th century.