“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
This famous quote by Albert Einstein was first published in Liberal Judaism 16 in 1949, only a decade after Alan Turing’s “Universal Computing machine” (the ancestor of the modern computer) made its debut and turned the tides for the Allied Nations during World War II. Neither Turing nor Einstein could have known just how influential the concept of stored programming and the subsequent development of the modern computer would be in both warfare and our day-to-day lives nearly 70 years later. If they had, they might have been equally awe-inspired and horrified. The computer and, more recently, the Internet have completely revolutionized politics, to the point that more and more countries are introducing new units to their military specifically designed for the prevention (and perhaps launching) of cyber attacks – that is, hostile acts committed exclusively through or with the help of computer/virtual network technology.
Each of the three branches of the US Military now includes a subdivision dedicated to responding to cyber attacks, with the Department of Defense having published its framework for cyber war, known as the “Five Pillars,” in 2011. That same year, the White House also published its first International Strategy for Cyberspace, stating in not so many words that, when warranted, the United States would not be afraid to respond to hostile acts in cyber space with appropriate force, using any and all means necessary to protect national interests.
It took less than 100 years for computers and the World Wide Web to penetrate our infrastructure so completely that activity which damages our ability to connect is considered an act of aggression. With a few carefully-developed codes, a country’s entire banking system can be destroyed, national secrets can be leaked, and missiles can be launched. While digitalization may be extremely efficient, it also leaves us vulnerable.
According to the official White House website, over the next four years, President Trump intends to “make it a priority to develop defensive and offensive cyber capabilities at our U.S. Cyber Command.” Under the Obama administration, cyber espionage was a frequently-used military tactic, although direct attacks on other nations’ cyber infrastructure was relatively limited. It remains to be seen whether the same discretion will be undertaken by the new administration, though the White House’s phrasing does seem to emphasize offensive measures in addition to defensive.
It is no longer a question of ability, when it comes to how we use technology in our politics – it is a matter of morality. For some nations (cough Russia cough), this is no barrier to the development of more sophisticated cyberwarfare tactics. For others, it is more about maintaining the façade of morality than actually adhering to any tangible moral code. In fewer words, this means that the future of the Internet as a weapon is almost entirely dependent on a handful of world leaders (few of whom have proven themselves to possess the maturity and/or foresight to be making such influential decisions). Between Putin, Xi, Kim and Trump, the morality factor seems to be coming into play less and less. And who can blame them? We’re the ones who based our entire infrastructure on one extremely susceptible network. It’s only a matter of time until someone completely shuts down someone else’s network, and Party B responds with a full-fledged missile launch. World War III could potentially be started without deploying a single soldier, thanks to the World Wide Web.
Obviously, all this is not to say that we should divorce ourselves completely from the Internet. While that method may have held merit twenty years ago, it’s simply too late to untangle ourselves now. Instead, we must prepare ourselves for the very real possibility that we have already found Einstein’s mystery weapon, and allowed it to penetrate every dimension of developed society.
They say not to put all your eggs in one basket – we’ve squeezed in the whole farm.