What will future cyber warfare look like?

Global concerns grow as digital attacks upend traditional defense tactics

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

SAN FRANCISCO—Cyber warfare is a red-hot topic at the RSA Conference 2017, unfolding this week at the Moscone Center.

For the 26th consecutive year, IT security professionals and business leaders descended on the City by the Bay to discuss the current state and future outlook of cybersecurity. They came to listen to thought leaders, visit glitzy trade show exhibits, and network at boisterous after-hours events.

Kenneth Geers, Comodo senior research scientist
Kenneth Geers, Comodo senior research scientist

Given Russia’s interference in the U.S. presidential elections, one of the talks sure to create buzz is scheduled to be given this afternoon by Kenneth Geers, senior research scientist at Comodo.

The title of Geer’s talk says it all: “Cyber War 2020.” I had the privilege of meeting one-on-one with Geers Monday evening. It was a fascinating dialogue. Here a few of the points we discussed:

• Oppression and power grabs. At this moment in history, certain autocrats are proactively stepping up cyber warfare tactics to control and oppress their native populations—and also to attempt to manipulate the balance of power between nations. This is being done by extending surveillance, controlling or discrediting news media outlets, spreading disinformation and interfering in elections.

• Commencing all-out cyber warfare. Let’s say an event caused an autocratic nation to launch an all-out cyber attack on the United States. What would that look like? You can expect power outages in major cities and crashes of big segments of our financial systems. That very likely would be followed by attempts to disrupt the U.S. armed forces’ ability to use the internet to communicate and deploy weapons.

• Waking the sleeping giant. In the event of such an attack, the United States eventually would recover from the autocratic nation’s initial cyber strikes. And then it would be bad news for the attacker. That’s because the U.S. currently has far greater internet connectivity—not to mention cyber warfare know-how—than Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

 kenneth-geers-book-launch_300Citizen cyber soldiers. Meanwhile, here’s a wild card. Western nations, led by the U.S., are home to hundreds of millions of smartphone wielding, social media-connected citizens who are inclined to oppose any autocratic strongman moving overtly to grab total control. The Arab Spring uprising first demonstrated the rapid scalability and raw power of citizen protests. The women’s rights and immigration ban protests showed again how social media and mobile device communications can rally and direct citizens’ power.

Geers is one of the planet’s top experts on cyber warfare. He was in on the ground floor in 2007 when NATO formed its Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence,  a multinational and interdisciplinary hub of cyber defense tactics, and remains an ambassador for that organization.

He admits it’s difficult to predict where these developments will take us in the immediate future. From his perspective helping NATO prepare for cyber warfare, he has a preference.

“I hope that, ultimately, the power goes to the people and information, education, connectivity and communication is going to be on the side of the people,” he told me. “At the end of the day, that’s going to be stronger than any autocrat’s use of the internet to defend a narrow political regime.”

I hope he’s right. You can hear Geers’ full argument in the podcast accompanying this story. Listen, share and keep this discussion going.

More stories about cyber warfare:

Cyber warfare will be battleground for next U.S. president
A cyber war might be closer than we think