Cyberwar and Peace

Hacking Can Reduce Real-World Violence

Vishant Patel, of the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit, talks about the malicious computer network known as the Citadel Botnet. Jason Redmond / Courtesy Reuters

Cyberwar Is Coming!” declared the title of a seminal 1993 article by the RAND Corporation analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt, who argued that the nascent Internet would fundamentally transform warfare. The idea seemed fanciful at the time, and it took more than a decade for members of the U.S. national security establishment to catch on. But once they did, a chorus of voices resounded in the mass media, proclaiming the dawn of the era of cyberwar and warning of its terrifying potential. In February 2011, then CIA Director Leon Panetta warned Congress that “the next Pearl Harbor could very well be a cyberattack.” And in late 2012, Mike McConnell, who had served as director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, warned darkly that the United States could not “wait for the cyber equivalent of the collapse of the World Trade Centers.”

Yet the hype about everything “cyber” has obscured three basic truths: cyberwar has never happened in the past, it is not occurring in the present, and it is highly unlikely that it will disturb the future. Indeed, rather than heralding a new era of violent conflict, so far the cyber-era has been defined by the opposite trend: a computer-enabled assault on political violence. Cyberattacks diminish rather than accentuate political violence by making it easier for states, groups, and individuals to engage in two kinds of aggression that do not rise to the level of war: sabotage and espionage. Weaponized computer code and computer-based sabotage operations make it possible to carry out highly targeted attacks on an adversary’s technical systems without directly and physically harming human operators and managers. Computer-assisted attacks make it possible to steal data without placing operatives in dangerous environments, thus reducing the level of personal and political risk.

These developments represent important changes in the nature of political violence, but they also highlight limitations inherent in cyberweapons that greatly curtail the utility of cyberattacks. Those limitations seem to make it difficult to use cyberweapons for

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