Alex Kingsbury and Anna Mulrine
More than two dozen professional hackers have set up operations in exurban
Not far away, the defenders prepare for the onslaught they know is coming during the two-day "Cyberdawn" exercise, one of the country's premier electronic war games. It is run with the help of volunteers by the private firm White Wolf Security, which also arranges closed war games for some federal agencies. The chance to test their cyberskills has attracted groups from private companies as well as the U.S. military. Ten teams, including those from West Point and the
The exercise pits teams from the U.S. military, the military's service academies, corporations, and even teenage computer savants against live hackers who look surprisingly innocuous. Most could easily be mistaken for middle-aged accountants, in neat khaki slacks and button-up shirts. Others are sporting Puma training jackets and baseball caps. The de facto leader of the group has donned a stylish black bowling shirt with a name patch that reads, simply, "Hacker." They have been instructed to use any means short of causing physical damage to exploit the vulnerabilities of their prey, placing them on the front line of what is an increasingly vital area of national security--the art and practice of offensive cyberwar.
Public debate about cyberspace revolves almost exclusively around questions of defense. Are retailers adequately protecting their customers' credit card information? How can home computers be immunized against nettlesome viruses? When will the Pentagon more effectively be able to stop hackers in
Offensive cyberwar itself can encompass espionage, intercepting communications, and disabling computers and other infrastructure.
The technical details behind these operations are very hush-hush, as disclosing them inevitably exposes the sources and methods of intelligence collection or military exploitation. The Pentagon, for instance, is keen to protect what hackers call "zero-day exploits," an industry term for vulnerabilities that enemies do not yet know exist. "There's a never-ending race for them," says
Despite the secrecy, brief glimpses of several cyberwar incursions have surfaced recently. The
Three former senior military officials involved in electronic warfare, speaking on the condition of anonymity for this article, say that
Communications and computer networks are the most obvious targets for cyberwar. But as technology spreads into more areas of the human experience, the possibilities for hacking grow exponentially. One potential application could be hacking into an enemy dictator's digital pacemaker, for instance, and making it go haywire. It is technologically feasible and would be the geek equivalent of a well-placed marksman's bullet, hackers say. They call it "digital sniping." Or hackers could break into an enemy country's banking system and scramble or delete accounts to cause havoc in the streets and a collapse of confidence in the government. "Accessing networks or disabling physical infrastructure remotely is, frankly, cheaper and safer. People do not have to risk their lives stealing documents, and pilots don't have to take antiaircraft fire bombing power stations," says one former senior intelligence official familiar with aspects of offensive cyberwar.
White Wolf's Rosenberg foresees a new generation of hybrid warriors. A former soldier and cyberwarfare go-to guy for the defense industry, he imagines one day deploying U.S. military cyberforces who might work in conjunction with special-operations units to remotely shut down power to a building prior to a military strike or hack into a security camera and kill the video feed. "There are all kinds of ways you can conduct cyber-physical operations," says Rosenberg, who adds that the field should also be considered a career track, which would enable the military to rank skill levels.
However, launching cyberattacks is illegal, which makes it tricky to train what Rosenberg calls "cybersamurai."
Over time, specialists guarding the barricades begin to feel like Sisyphus, the mythical Greek condemned to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again. And on a number of occasions, the only defense is isolation. In 2007, amid a larger political dispute, hackers apparently based in
At Cyberdawn, the military's best-case scenario often involves sacrificing security in some realms in the hopes of defending others, says Col.
The predicament is also a costly one. A malicious worm attack in the Pentagon's computer networks this year has cost millions of dollars to mitigate. Last month, Deputy Defense Secretary
America's technological dependence and vulnerability to attacks explain why officials are reluctant to discuss the U.S. cyberarsenal. "Right now we have the brain capacity to launch attacks, but we have neither the technology nor the personnel to fight off a counterattack, nor the means to know exactly where an attack comes from," says
An attack launched from
In other cases, the perpetrators are more obvious. The Chinese government, while publicly denying offensive cyberoperations, makes little effort to hide its activities, according to the U.S. intelligence community. Congressional leaders have been told for years that
Back at Cyberdawn, the vulnerabilities are becoming apparent. Hacker
There's no doubt the cyberwar learning curve is steep. An hour after the cyberattacks begin, the
Securing the Information Highway
Wesley K. Clark and Peter L. Levin
The Obama administration recognizes that the United States is utterly dependent on Internet-based systems and that its information assets are precariously exposed. Accordingly, it has made electronic network security a crucial defense priority. But that is only the tip of the iceberg.
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