At the height of its imperial power, "all roads led to Rome." The Latin capital, as the seat of government, center of commerce and central transportation hub, connected the entire empire. Now the Internet is, in a figurative sense, a hyper-Rome, a global "information superhighway" with digital routes connecting anywhere to everywhere -- as long as you can get a signal with sufficient bandwidth.
The city of Rome had stout walls. The various walls protecting devices connected to the Internet (e.g., firewalls, anti-virus software) aren't perfect and, given increasing economic and communications reliance on the Internet, are uncomfortably vulnerable to sophisticated attacks.
Cyber attackers -- whether they are spies, teenage geek vandals or criminal thieves and blackmailers -- seek military, diplomatic, economic and personal data, or seek to disrupt the opponents' ability to transfer data effectively and securely.
In May 2007, Estonia accused Russia of launching a cyber attack on its computer systems. Georgia experienced heavy cyber attacks in August 2008 during its brief "shooting war" with Moscow. China and the U.S. regularly trade accusations of what amounts to "cyber skirmishing" involving hackers (who may or may not be working for intelligence agencies) and military cyber warfare units (which can digitally disguise themselves as independent hackers).
While digital anonymity and deniability are not absolute, the difficulty of tracing an attack to its source appeals to would-be cyber terrorists. Cyber attacks do not leave craters, so political leaders may be slow to react. Bank accounts bled of funds are not as definitive signs of warfare as dead and wounded civilians, though the damage caused by concerted cyber attacks against a modern Information Age nation-state's financial networks is potentially enormous.
Other networks also provide targets that create what strategists call "cascading effects." Computers guide America's electrical grids, monitoring and controling the circuits. A cyber terrorist who can cause an electrical blackout on a national scale gets an offensive "three-fer": 1) an attack on key infrastructure, 2) an economic assault (damaging commerce) and 3) a psychological attack seeding hysteria and perhaps producing political panic. U.S. security agencies are aware of this, which is why interagency cooperation and cooperation with power companies on cyber-security issues is a must.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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