The world becomes more technologically advanced by the minute. You can watch movies or play games on your smartphone. You can get internet access in Antarctica if you have access to a satellite. You might even be able to purchase a car that drives itself around town.
It’s intuitive technology like this that requires our military to stay one step ahead of people who can do harm from a keyboard. And to accomplish that, the armed forces may be hiring people they once considered “digital criminals.” To you and I, they’re simply known as computer hackers.
Hackers, once thought to be nothing more than pests in growing business markets, are now being recruited by intelligence and law enforcement agencies around the globe. According to a recent U.S. News and World Report article, experts have suggested that the United States government will need to hire at least 10,000 cyber security experts over the next several years, and the private sector will need even more.
The National Security Agency (NSA) now offers “cyber-ops” programs at selected universities in the hope that a few students will wind up working for the U.S. Cyber Command. Even the world’s largest computer hacking convention, DEFCON, has been commercialized as corporations and law enforcement agencies are looking to hire those they once hunted.
Digital Warfare is the Next Step
With all the focus on drones and smart bombs to save the lives of friendlies, it’s curious as to why the military hasn’t fully adopted digital warfare.
According to John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., the U.S. has fallen behind in the cyber race. He believes that with the right implementation of computer masterminds and code crackers, they could disrupt enemy networks on such a large scale that the war on terror could have ended long ago.
It wasn’t even until 2011 that the Pentagon took notice of these cyber terrorists. In March of that year, a security breach compromised 24,000 Pentagon files when a foreign intelligence agency penetrated the computer system of a corporate contractor. It was this loss that caused the Pentagon to reevaluate its strategy of focusing on prevention through firewalls, and moving towards the idea that hackers needed to be sought out and stopped altogether. These attacks led officials to draft the International Strategy for Cyberspace, which couldn’t have come at a more important time.
As of now, the military operates more than 15,000 computer networks and 7 million computers around the world. These networks are attacked millions of times a day, often resulting in economic loss and compromises in security. And over the last ten years, thefts include plans for surveillance technology, satellite communication systems and an estimated loss of $1 trillion. These attacks are said to be done by hackers in Russia and China, which Arquilla says holds the highest number of super hackers in the world.
Computer Highways are a New Battleground
Master hackers are the Navy Seals of their world. They can detect, track, disrupt and alter computer systems in ways most of us will never even understand. Their ability to manipulate these structures can have profound effects on the logistics of war.
Take the Stuxnet worm for example. This computer virus, initially spread via Microsoft Windows, is the first malware program that spies on and subverts industrial systems, and the first to include a programmable logic controller (PLC) rootkit. Its highly specialized payload infects PLCs, which control electromechanical aspects of robotic machinery, by subverting the software application that is used to program these devices. In short, these hackers can made production equipment obsolete.
The US and Israeli governments developed and deployed this worm in an attempt to break Iranian nuclear centrifuge equipment by issuing specific commands to the industrial control hardware responsible for their spin rate. The hope was to set back the Iranian research program and to keep Israel from launching a preemptive military attack. All in all, it was successful.
The bottom line is that these digital cowboys fit right in with the military’s new nimbler, leaner strategies. And while hacking will never replace the men and women on the ground or in the air, when incorporated in military strategy, these keyboard commandos can be an effective weapon that could save thousands of lives.
Photo thanks to Peter π and creative commons on Flickr.
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