Rethinking Terrorism in the Informatics Age

Terrorism cannot be far from American’s minds this week as we commemorate the September 11th attacks, memorialize the heroes who gave their life, and mourn both the lives of those lost and the end of the peace dividend we had hoped to enjoy following the end of the Soviet Union and the wave of democracy that swept through Eastern Europe.

In cyberspace, analysts vacillate between Cold War concerns from China and Russia (and their satellite nations) involving state-sponsored, non-border attacks on the U.S. and the West and terrorist attacks from non-state actors and self-proclaimed freedom fighters.

At the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit, defense industry analysts discussed these attacks, many of which “appeared to be state-sponsored and came from multiple countries.” The speakers did not identify any particular government. As reported by Reuters, “every defense company is constantly under attack. If anybody tells you they’re not, it just means they don’t know,” said Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Wes Bush. “It is a threat that is broad-based. It’s not just from one source … and it’s just unceasing.”

In March 2011, a foreign intelligence service stole 24,000 computer files in March from a defense contractor developing systems for the U.S. military. The breach was acknowledged in July. “This was significant,” Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told reporters.

Lynn said the attackers swiped “data related to systems that are being developed for the Department of Defense. … It was done, we think, by a foreign intelligence service. In other words a nation state was behind it,” he added. Lynn declined to identify the likely suspected nation involved in the theft.

Earlier in the year, credible evidence pointed to China for attacks on Google and dozens of military defense contractors. Again, the DoD has not officially named the country or countries involved in the attack, but because Chinese dissidents were specifically targeted as well as other evidence, China’s involvement has been widely reported.

Perhaps one of the most damaging of these attacks was to RSA, the security division of EMC. In an comprehensive expose in Vanity Fair, the RSA attacks are explained.  “RSA is the security division of the high-tech company EMC. Its products protect computer networks at the White House, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, most top defense contractors, and a majority of Fortune 500 corporations.”

The RSA and defense-contractor hacks are among the latest battles in a decade-long spy war. Hackers from many countries have been exfiltrating—that is, stealing—intellectual property from American corporations and the U.S. government on a massive scale, and Chinese hackers are among the main culprits. Because virtual attacks can be routed through computer servers anywhere in the world, it is almost impossible to attribute any hack with total certainty.

The DoD is responding. “The new Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program was submitted under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the Department of Defense. The goal is to “develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base” to help the agency keep abreast with communication technologies, namely Twitter. This is just one counter-insurgency activity being pursued.

The world is a very different place than it was a decade ago. We are only beginning to understand how much we have lost.


Special thanks to Vince Polley this (and so many other topics). Follow him at KnowConnect PLLC (supplemented by related Tweets: #mirln).