What will future cyber warfare look like?

Global concerns grow as digital attacks upend traditional defense tactics

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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