It's Time to Start Stoking Fears of Cyber War

This week is Washington's "make-or-break" moment to pass a new cybersecurity bill ahead of the August recess. As a result, there's never been a better time to stoke fears of a crippling cyber attacks regardless of their actual likelihood. 

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This week is Washington's "make-or-break" moment to pass a new cybersecurity bill ahead of the August recess. As a result, there's never been a better time to stoke fears of a crippling cyber attack regardless of its actual likelihood. As The Hill's Jennifer Martinez and Brendan Sasso report today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is poised to move a bill sponsored by Sen. Joe Lieberman for a vote as early as Wednesday. The goal of the bill is to improve the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure like power plants and water systems, but if you were to take this week's rhetoric at face value, the safety of the Republic is really what's at stake.

The fear mongers ranged from industry types to politicians. "Anyone can buy the technological capability to cripple the electric grid, steal proprietary information from seemingly secure websites, and digitally drain bank accounts of money," Sen. Lieberman stated ahead of this week's votes. "Our most important networks are alarmingly vulnerable." At the same time, President Obama, who supports Lieberman's bill, penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that opened with an ominous, Don DeLillo-ish premonition of a train derailing, chemicals exploding into a "toxic cloud" and water treatment plants shutting down and poisoning the water supply. "Fortunately," the president noted, it was just a national security exercise. Still, "In a future conflict, an adversary unable to match our military supremacy on the battlefield might seek to exploit our computer vulnerabilities here at home,” he wrote.

Industry types, who stand to benefit from the bill, which incentivizes business to adopt new cybersecurity technology, are also touting the dangers of cyber war. In the trade pub Defense Systems, the Technolytics Institute's Kevin Coleman hypes the possibility of a future cyber war with Iran. "You cannot help but think that we are on the brink of an intense cyber war with Iran," he writes. Is that true? It seems the hype should be taken with a grain of salt.

In an article in Foreign Policy, Tom Mahnken, professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, pours cold water all over the cyber fear mongers. The main weakness of their argument is the suggestion that cyberwar evens the playing field between weak and strong countries. Per Mahnken:

 Although many view cyber weapons as tools of the weak, they are likely to be most effective when wielded by the strong. That is because cyber means cannot compensate for weakness in other instruments of power. In other words, if a cyber attack by a weaker power on a stronger one fails to achieve its aim, the attacker is likely to face retaliation. In such a situation, the stronger power will possess more, and more lethal, options to retaliate -- what is known in nuclear deterrence terminology as escalation dominance. A weak power might be able to cause a stronger power some annoyance through cyber attack, but in seeking to compel an adversary through cyberwar, it would run the very real risk of devastating escalation.

And that doesn't even get to the downsides of Lieberman's bill. According to The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the bill represents a serious threat to individual privacy: "Currently, the bill specifically authorizes companies to use cybersecurity as an excuse for engaging in nearly unlimited monitoring of user data or countermeasures (like blocking or dropping packets)." Peter Gothard describes further privacy concerns here. It's unclear of Democrats have the votes to pass the bill. According to Politico's Tony Romm, they just need to pick off a few Republicans, which they are in range of doing. Still, it's a little disquieting to see that armageddon needs to be invoked to get the bill passed, regardless of reality.

Image via Shutterstock by Sangiori

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.