In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, Defense Secretary nominee Leon Panetta told the Committee that he does not regard the struggle against Internet hacking as like the Cold War. “This is not like the Cold War. This is more like the Blizzard War,” he said. “The next Pearl Harbor that we confront could well be a cyber attack.”
The Blizzard War? That may be an apt analogy in that, in a blizzard, it often becomes difficult to know where things are. In a hacker attack against a particular computer or network, it’s often impossible to know who is orchestrating the attack, and what it’s intended target is.
As much as they are like blizzards, hacking incursions are not, in truth, very much like war. They’re more like espionage, or procedural sabotage, or a very partial blockade. No human beings get harmed in the process. Physical damage is unlikely to result. Information may be stolen, or blocked or destroyed, but no blood is shed.
That’s an important distinction, given the Department of Defense’s recent decision to consider hacker attacks as acts of war. In the blizzard conditions of a hacker attack, where computers can be used to hijack other computers to hijack yet other computers, and so on, it’s extremely difficult to reliably assign blame. In such circumstances, the declaration of war, whether legal through Congress or through the increasingly typical presidential launch of violent hostilities without congressional approval, has the dangerous potential to lead our nation into expensive, yet unnecessary wars.
American intelligence has been proven highly unreliable. The rush to invade Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction that did not exist is a notable case in point. We ought not trust the Pentagon to lead America into war in the ever more obscure, blizzard-prone realm of the Internet.
Pearl Harbor is unlikely online. We won’t see computer viruses with little battle insignia telling us who is conducting the attack. If an attack against Internet infrastructure comes, it might not be orchestrated by a foreign country, but by organized crime, or by political protesters within the United States. People might not realize for days, or even weeks, that there is a problem. Pearl Harbor took place in the clear light of day, not in a blizzard.
The metaphor of war is seductive, but misleading in its seduction. Let’s call hacking problems a blizzard, but not a Blizzard War.