Running a War by Computer: Cyber Warfare and Its Dilemmas: Stuart McMillan Discusses a Growing International Security Problem

By McMillan, Stuart | New Zealand International Review, May-June 2013 | Go to article overview

Running a War by Computer: Cyber Warfare and Its Dilemmas: Stuart McMillan Discusses a Growing International Security Problem


McMillan, Stuart, New Zealand International Review


I will begin with a few stories. Then I will comment a little about how widespread and serious the issue is and then I will outline a few of the dilemmas associated with cyber warfare.

The first story comes from 2009. The Melbourne Film Festival included a film which was made by a Uighur leader regarded by China as a terrorist. The Uighur people are ethnically Turkic and many are Muslim. The website of the Melbourne Film Festival was blocked and people were not able to book through their computers. The website was clearly under attack.

The second story comes from 2007 when Israel bombed a partly constructed nuclear reactor in Syria. The puzzle for many people observing this was why the Syrian Air Force did not respond to the attack. The most probable explanation was that the Israelis were able to use a switch to turn off the Syrian radar system. The technology is believed to have been supplied to Israel by the United States.

The third story comes from 2008 and the war between Russia and Georgia. Georgian government websites were closed down by an attack. Georgia responded by getting servers, that is big computers in the United States, to host the government websites, apparently believing that the attackers would not dare mount further attacks. Georgia at the time was intent on involving the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the United States in the war with Russia.

A fourth story comes from attempts to stop Iran developing technology to enrich uranium. In 2010 the Israelis wanted to bomb the Iranian sites. The Americans did not want them to. Then a funny thing happened. The Iranians were not able to continue because a computer worm, that is a computer programme which reproduces itself and blocks systems, disabled the enrichment programme. This was the Stuxnet worm, which was a highly sophisticated programme, so sophisticated that computer experts believed that it would have taken huge resources to develop it, far beyond the capabilities of a single person or a small group.

It was eventually disclosed that the Israelis with American help--the Americans were not too keen on claiming authorship--had developed the programme and it had been introduced to the Iranian uranium enrichment programme. I think President Obama was caught in a bind. He was being criticised for not backing an Israeli air strike on the Iranian facilities so US help was given in developing the Stuxnet worm. I have never seen an explanation of how it was introduced into the Iranian computers. The point is important because it might have needed a human to do that--which would be an indication that the Israelis or the Americans had someone working in the Iranian facilities. Probably the Iranians wanted a programme or a piece of equipment and that was doctored before it got to Iran.

My last story is about the people who supported Julian Assange, the Australian who organised the release of all those confidential US documents, and founded the organisation Wikileaks. There was an appeal from Wikileaks for money to support Julian Assange and to keep the organisation going. Under US pressure a number of banks refused to process payments. The websites of Mastercard, Visa and a Swiss bank were brought down by a group known as Anonymous. That same group, incidentally, is threatening President Morsi of Egypt with cyber warfare unless he relinquishes the extra-judicial powers he has recently given himself.

Big differences

There are, of course, some significant differences in the stories. Only a limited number of us would consider interfering with a film festival an act of war. But one of the principles at stake is freedom of speech. Another is the right to pursue one's own cultural Values.

There are big differences, too, about the types and the complexity of cyber-attacks. The attack on the film festival website was done by having the website bombarded by a number of computers. …

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