At last, peace and quiet (or at least quiet): The good/​bad news about cyberwarfare

All quiet on the warring front

3 minute read
From the clash of swords and shields to the sounds of musketry and cannon, war has always been a noisy affair. In the last century, tanks have rumbled across the countryside, air raid sirens have whined, artillery boomed and bombs burst in air.

Warfare's accompaniment often created noise, too, in the form of drumbeats, bugles and— perhaps most loudly dissonant and petrifying to enemies on the battlefield— bagpipes. Combatants who survived the 20th Century's two world wars often suffered permanent shell shock and deafness.

But cyberwarfare and drones have reduced the decibel level of warfare. Stealth chemicals like ricin and sarin may kill people, but they don't burst anyone's eardrums.

When you consider the enormous toll of death and injury in the 20th Century's wars— not to mention the monetary price— the new battlefield requires hardly any boots on the ground and far less cost.

Poisoning the president

Why, for instance, should any nation spend millions for sophisticated fighter jets when weaponized drones can be deployed by operatives sitting at computers in Washington? Tomorrow's warriors will look less like Caesar or Napoleon and more like kids playing video games.

Ricin, a hugely toxic substance, is a soluble white powder extracted from castor seeds. When it's ingested or inhaled, seizures or hallucinations occur, and it can cause fluid accumulation in the lungs, leading to respiratory failure and death. As a weapon of terror, it can be injected into food or water supplies. Recently, envelopes containing ricin have been delivered to President Obama and other senior political figures.

During both world wars, several countries experimented with methods of delivering ricin powder. They failed, of course, and consequently 8.5 million soldiers were killed in battle in World War I and at least 22 million in World War II. Wouldn't it have been simpler just to send a special delivery letter to Hitler or the Kaiser?

Snowden's potential damage

Sarin, unlike plant-based ricin, is a deadly chemical nerve gas. Saddam Hussein used it to kill thousands of Kurds. Sarin also killed 13 people and injured 6,000 others when a cult organization released the gas in a Tokyo subway in 1995. Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, is also said to have used sarin against rebels in his country.

Cyber warfare and robotics have changed forever the way nations and factions fight. Drones can obviate the need for physical presence and can pinpoint their targets from vast distances. Along with these advances come heavy moral and political considerations.

Consider the current case of Edward Snowden, the lower-level government operative who leaked a vast amount of secret US intelligence. The implications of that leakage are enormous: An enemy that could disrupt America's computer network could potentially turn the Western world's clocks back to Medieval times, and perhaps cause more deaths than a nuclear attack.

Preventive measures

The good news: At Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, the Center for Cyberspace Research is busy cracking codes and defending data. Countervail Corporation is developing both prophylactic remedies and post-exposure antidotes to toxins such as sarin. And the National Institutes of Health recently awarded a five-year, $23.2 million grant to a group of investigators at Rutgers University and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey for research aimed at developing drugs that can be used against chemical warfare agents such as mustard gas, which was used to devastating effect in World War I as well as in the Iraq"“Iran war of the 1980s.

So, yes, war is still hell. But now that it's getting quieter, the new challenge is to find the means to combat unseen and unheard enemies. But someone is responding to that challenge.

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