Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Cutting Cables: Info Warfare in the 21st Century

By now, it's almost common knowledge that there have been a rash of "incidents" (Thanks, BoingBoing) surrounding the internet infrastructure of the Middle East. Something has managed to disable five separate cables connecting the region to the rest of the world.

The economic implications are already disastrous. Stalled or massively slowed internet has consequences far beyond just the commerce of the Middle East. Any government using the web to communicate is hamstrung; sensitive data being stored in overseas servers is rendered inaccessible. Things. Stop. Working.

Imagine suddenly being unconnected, only it's not just you, but your neighbors, your boss, your company, every company, newspaper, tv channel, and any utilities that have migrated onto the web. I suppose it's a salute to the incredible power and connectivity of the internet that imagining being "disconnected" in this day and age is hard to even fathom. It's almost surprising things don't sound any more dire from over there (but how does one hear them? There's probably a Zen proverb hidden in this somewhere...)

The actual system of cables is so complicated that accurate speculation on the severity of the outage is tricky. The cables connect a great number of countries and the pipelines run to the north-east up into the Mediterranean and Europe and south-west down and around India and into Asia. For a more comprehensive look, The Guardian provides this handy diagram.

However, there are certain statistics which seem frankly indicative of an intended target. At the moment, Iran reads zero response--essentially, nothing coming, nothing going. I will not vouch for the accuracy of the test at the given moment, especially with the haywire atmosphere of the region, but it is an interesting insight.

And then, as one astute BoingBoing reader pointed out, this all comes within days of the Iran Oil Bourse opening. Wow, talk about coincidences, right? With the IOB in place, the removal of the dollar from Iranian oil transactions is essentially complete. This would be a severe blow against the U.S. With the dollar already in a bit of a death-spiral as of late, dollar-based oil transactions have been a pillar of keeping the currency relevant on the open market. Many have already seen Iran's announcement of this move and the U.S.'s subsequent upping of war rhetoric as history repeating itself.

If the conclusion is not already obvious, all of the exaggerated run-ins in the Strait of Hormuz should lead one to an obvious conclusion: the U.S. and possibly its special forces had some hand in this.

The reason I'm taking the time to even bring it up is because I think it offers something unusual to the traditional info-warfare paradigm: normally, cyberwarfare is considered to be the realm of supercomputers, upper-echelon hackers, and powerful coding schemes and virii for infiltrating the enemy's networks and subverting them internally. This sexy-sounding world of high-calculation intrigue has not been without its significant moments as of late, real or imagined.

As it turns out, China and the U.S. have a whole string of incidents between them, moments which often get a brief mention in the press before being forgotten either because of exceeding secrecy surrounding the actual event or the general population's disinterest in the technical nature of the topic. After all, it is so much easier to envision a Cold War played out with thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at each other, rather than thousands of supercomputers. Mutually Assured Destruction carries a much more obvious meaning than stolen passwords, corrupted kernels, and so on.

But if the cable cutting happening in the Middle East is in fact an act of sabotage, there is a whole new kind of cyberwarfare being played out. And it does not involve geeky Caltech grads compiling code in NSA superbunkers. It's a warfare of the much more traditional kind, probably involving some well-placed naval intimidation, a few submarines, and special forces operatives. Cutting cables may not have the elegance of a well-crafted icebreaker, but it gets the job done, and does so in a way that may prove harder to trace back to the culprit.

It may be that the cyberwarrior of the future will not use superb intellect and precise coding to conduct operations--not when there's a much more obvious and available "off-switch."

Call me crazy but this is one tomorrow that's beginning to sound a lot like yesterday.

Update: Wired has a piece up on the same subject. I tried to take it seriously but then he goes and mentions Al-Qaeda in the first paragraph... Really? The guys who carry their munitions across the mountains on donkeys? Are you kidding me? Are we now waterboarding them to the point they survive crush depths with scuba gear stitched out of Yak-skin? I guess that simulated drowning really is good for something after all.

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