Many defence experts expect the next war to be partly digital, fought in the realms of cyberspace seeking to disrupt essential systems. We know that many nation states already engage in security probing of other country’s systems seeking to detect vulnerabilities.
We also know that there is state-sponsored censorship of news and current events coupled with an information battle that borders on propaganda. These infowars have left many people cynical about the veracity of virtually all media. For many of us, the media appears largely agenda driven rather than motivated by straight news reporting.
Information is one thing but a cyber-attack on critical infrastructure like utilities, banking, internet access or telecommunications could be devastating and quickly disable the social structure as well as the economic infrastructure of the target nation. Just think how interconnected our lives are; without the means to access the internet or a reliable electricity grid, almost every aspect of our lives would be affected.
That’s why some experts consider the deliberate targeting of essential systems by state-sponsored hackers to be an act of war.
Which is why the comments of US Vice-President Joe Biden last week captured my attention.
Amid allegations of Russian involvement in the WikiLeaks disclosure of Hillary Clinton’s damning emails and trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, Biden has threatened US cyber-retaliation. It is worth noting that Russia has pointedly denied both claims.
Biden said on television that the US is planning to retaliate against Russia, "We're sending a message. We have the capacity to do it".
"He'll know it", Biden added, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "It will be at the time of our choosing, and under the circumstances that have the greatest impact".
Now, I don’t know what the US has in mind, but it seems odd that they would declare their intentions in such a forthright manner. Whether Russia is indeed responsible for the information release that damns the Democrat Party and their presidential hopeful is rather a moot point.
I have been told that the thing about cyber-attacks is that they are almost impossible to prove exactly who is responsible and under what circumstances. Are they rogue individuals or state-sponsored? Was it an internal system failure, software backdoor or a malicious code? In many instances, adept hackers also seek to redirect suspicion to others to cover their tracks.
I have no doubt that the US government has some of the most sophisticated IT systems on the planet – with the professionals to maximise their use. They might actually have rock-solid proof that Russia is behind the Clinton woes. However, if state-sponsored hacking is a crime and, as some experts suggest, a warlike action, why would Joe Biden telegraph US intentions?
It strikes me as a most unwise thing to do. Perhaps that is why Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin recently said that tensions with the United States are “probably the worst since the 1973 Mideast war".
That should be enough to concern us all.