The hack of the Sony Corporation film division has White House representatives talking about determining “appropriate retaliation” and “proportional response” using terms that sound more like a Pentagon briefing than a discussion of an information breach at a private company. Cyber attacks and information theft have turned computers into weapons of mass destruction. Corporate offices have become theatres of engagement and the battle over the Sony Corporation may have become the face of modern warfare.
When a missile is launched at a target, within seconds it becomes possible to determine both the point of origin and the target. Damage and casualty estimates can be made before the weapon even hits the ground. The mere fact of the launch itself can be a declaration of war. Warfare in the modern age, however, is becoming a different thing, and Americans may have to face the fact that the very freedoms that are the foundation for democracy make them more vulnerable to the new methods of combat. Countries with strict state control over internet access and use are far more able to limit liability and make difficult targets when compared to the U.S. and a culture which revolves around freedom of access to information. The Sony hack has proven nothing if not that nobody is completely secure, and that even the most innocuous looking information can be used to inflict significant damage if used correctly.
Military strategists have historically spent countless time and energy in pursuit of weapons which could inflict widespread damage with a minimum of risk to their own assets. Oftentimes, battle plans include the pursuit of methods to inflict maximum damage to morale and psychological wellness in order to undermine the resolve of the enemy. To date, most reasonable people recognize that the methods tried have come at too high a cost to human life for them to be in widespread use without serious repercussions from the world community. The evolution of mass-effect weapons into the virtual realm has opened the door to a more socially palatable weapon of mass destruction.
Setting aside the possibilities in terms of infiltrating electronic control of things like infrastructure and power, and strictly speaking about information theft such as in the case of the Sony hack, the potential for massive disruption and significant damage is frightening. Americans allow service providers to scan their emails and browsing histories on a regular basis for the convenience of targeted marketing and advertising. A breach of security allowing access to that type of information, even for a few minutes, by a hostile nation or entity could provide the means to wreak wide-spread havok. Synching and sharing of data between mobile devices and computers allows for a facility of use that Americans have become dependent on, but makes it that much easier for someone with ill-intent to gain access.
Sony, with the release of internal e-mails, salary data, and some personal information, has been significantly impacted financially and had their operations thrown into chaos trying to respond and do damage control. All this from a relatively small amount of data being made public and the strategic application of threatening E-mail messages. A larger scale, concerted effort to create panic and financial ruin, could be devastating. Sharing internal E-mail and memos between competing corporations, or widespread release of browsing or purchase histories on public websites, ostensibly low-level security information, could create panic and disruption that would make the Y2K scare pale in comparison. If the U.S. thought that citizens were too dependent on technology then, today it is much worse. The difference is the possibly false sense of security which currently exists.
An attacking nation would never need to go after military targets. It might be too difficult to take down the national power grid or air-traffic control systems, but the effort it would take to convince Americans on a large scale that online banking systems were not entirely secure, or that their online investment accounts were vulnerable, might be more manageable. They would not even necessarily have to do it, they would simply have to make enough highly-visible, targeted breaches to give the impression and watch the nation tear itself apart. Enemy states would not have to be military powers, they might do just as much damage as talented scam artists.
On the face of it, the Sony Corporation hack seems like a relatively small thing, but as a new example of modern cyber warfare techniques, it is something much more nefarious. It does not take much extrapolation to see the implications raised by the incident, nor the level of exposure that most Americans currently have for the sake of increased convenience.
Commentary By Jim Malone