In a 1993 Rand Corporation think piece now legendary among digital theorists, authors John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt looked to a near future in which military and idelogical battles would be fought more and more with data and social networks. “Cyberwar is Coming”, written for the U.S. military and intelligence community, essentially foretold how the virtual world, with its growing store of information, links between interest groups and rapidly evolving technological platforms, would come to shape power and politics in the ‘offline world’, to the point where wars between nations could eventually be waged and won online. Twenty years later, it’s clear they were right on the money.
Early tactical adopters of the Internet in the 90s, activists like myself who were already seeing the power of email and forums for organizing protests and waging reputation battles, knew in their gut that Arquilla and Ronfeldt were right. While indicators have since been popping up sporadically, the headline-grabbing events of the past few weeks announce that Cyberwar is no longer science fiction but a clear and present danger.
Recent expressions of Cyberwar
Dramatic cases of cyber-espionage, and cyber-sabotage have made recent headlines in technology circles and beyond. Whether the arena is business or geopolitics, what is notable about these cases is the weight of their offline impact.
A just-released report by U.S. security firm Mandiant reveals that Chinese national interests have supported systematic hacking of North American economic targets with the intent of siphoning business intelligence. The costs of this to the U.S. economy are calculated in the tens of billions of dollars. Reacting quickly to this news, the U.S. administration announced a 500% manpower increase in its CYBERCOM military division, whose mandate is to manage defensive and offensive cyberwar operations.
- Since the beginning of the year, the list of technology and media giants that have fallen prey to hackers is impressive. Apple, Twitter, Facebook, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times have all come forward with breaches in their security. When you control the store and mange the personal data of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of users, just imagine the legal and financial liabilities that such attacks can bring!
- Both Burger King and Jeep had their Twitter accounts taken over in the same week by hackers. In both cases, this sabotage was mostly goofy: Jeep saying it was bought by Cadillac and Burger King’s account temporarily switching to a McDonald’s identity. Given that these accounts each reach over 100,000 followers, however, the potential for true reputation damage was there. What’s the cost of repairing reputation when you’re a global brand? We’re into the millions here for sure, all thanks to some patchy online security.
Impact and implications for business and politics
The main take-away from recent developments is that the dichotomy of ‘online’ and ‘offline’ is no longer relevant as far as economic and military power are concerned, due to the complete penetration of technology, Internet and social networks in OECD countries. In other words, what starts out digital can very easily convert into hard economic, social or political consequences.
The urge to hide
The rising frequency of Cyberwar episodes leads decision makers to two possible reactions: One is to get scared and defensive, to invest in digital security and to batten down the hatches. To some extent, this is a wise move, as cyber-saboteurs grow in number. But if this involves shutting down one’s connections with networked society and hiding from it all, then it is a serious tactical error.
Not just for hackers and activists…
- Master the use of social media marketing, for example, and you may hardly have to look at spending a dollar on traditional advertising to become a hit in your sector. This, by the way, is the story of the Dollar Shave Club.
- Politicians, like Newark Mayor Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) have built up a direct and very personal channel to their supporters and constituents through social networks. Try ousting him now by pitting traditional media against his 1.3 million Twitter followers!
- From the Public Relations side of things, when competitors have all the top columnists in their pocket, why not build your own medium through a powerful blog and VIP twitter following. If you engage online influencers successfully, you will have a channel for your voice whenever you have something worthwhile to announce and, sooner or later, you will end up making headlines in the main titles as well. I will soon feature an interview with a man who has pulled this off quite successfully…