Security

Will a hacker cause World War III?

Patrick Lambert discusses whether he thinks World War III will be caused by a rogue hacker.

We all remember movies like WarGames, where some whiz kid wants to show off his computer skills, hacking into government computers, poking around until he finds the control for nuclear weapons. Then, tragedy is averted at the last second before World War III is triggered. That's some good entertainment, but gone are the days when people thought this kind of event could actually happen.

The chance some random hacker on the Internet could trigger a nuclear blast is ridiculously tiny. For one thing, all the control systems for these mass destruction weapons are so old, they couldn't even be plugged into the Internet, much less accessed remotely. Plus, the risks are well understood, and there's a large amount of very smart people working on making sure such a scenario never leaves the world of Hollywood.

But another series of events has been happening lately with almost complete impunity, which if they continue, could become almost as devastating to society as a missile launch. As individuals, businesses, and governments become more and more interconnected, hackers have been scoring increasingly scary hits against their systems.

It used to be that hackers would target logins and passwords, perhaps credit card numbers, by using malware on computer systems, but in the past 12 months, the target has shifted. Earlier this year, hackers targeted RSA, a maker of security tokens for big corporations. This allowed the hackers to compromise government contractors that were said to be impregnable, because of the RSA security devices they used. Then last month, there was a report of hackers getting into Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, one of the top makers of submarines and weapon components like the Patriot Missile.

While systems that control the actual firing of weapons are apparently safe from hackers, it's becoming evident that everything else in the chain, whether it's the people who are supposed to be securing our systems, or the companies making the weapons, is highly vulnerable to attacks. Then, you have statements from the DoD saying that cyber terrorism is an act of war. The Pentagon said: "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks."

It's easy to see where this could lead. While armies are busy securing their weapon systems and communications against new online threats, the backdoor is completely open. Shut down a power grid, a military contractor, or a missile maker, and you cripple a country's ability to defend itself. If you do it against the United States in the name of another nation, that country might be fired upon. So, how long before we start seeing viruses made specifically to infest missile control systems?

Another interesting target is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are the future of air combat. UAVs allow pilots to stay comfortably at the base, while the small plane takes off, drops its bombs, and comes back to base. Right now, UAVs are heavily used in combat. As an example, in 2005 the U.S. military killed between 6 and 7 people using UAV drones in Pakistan alone; in 2010, that number was between 607 and 993 casualties. (Those statistics were found on Wikipedia.) These things kill, and they rely on a mountain of software, produced by companies all around the world. Will we see the day when a drone stops answering its military operator, and instead phones home to a hacker in a remote part of the world, because one of its circuits had been injected with malware back at the factory?

It's hard to dismiss these threats, because all the evidence so far is that computer security is an afterthought for many people and businesses. It's clear that we're heading into a world that is highly technological, where software controls a lot of our modern life. Even with our computers running antivirus software, there are still regular reports of identity fraud, websites being hacked, and so on. Smartphones are the big target right now, with malware on the rise. The next targets are the integrated circuits -- things that used to be too simple to hack, but are now highly sophisticated and constantly online.

Could World War III be caused by a rogue hacker? No, I don't think so -- at least not in the way that's shown in the movies -- but if things keep going the way they are, how could this not be the end result? Money and power is often the driving force of people all around the world, and if a target is left wide open for abuse, you know it's just a matter of time before someone hits the button.

Also read: U.S. drones under attack from virus

About

Patrick Lambert has been working in the tech industry for over 15 years, both as an online freelancer and in companies around Montreal, Canada. A fan of Star Wars, gaming, technology, and art, he writes for several sites including the art news commun...

110 comments
delf20k
delf20k

If a group of hackers got into the big banks and stock exchange system in such a way as to cause a huge panic most of your big banks could be broke within a week leaving your financial system in ruins. Is there any way that a war would not start then if another nation was less than helpful with finding the people to blame?

InfoSec Master
InfoSec Master

Cyber War is a silly phrase almost as ridiculous as "global War on Terrorism". Cyber agression is most common to or engages in espionage and piracy. Cyber agressions are not in any fashion war. War, based on the Westphalia and Hague conventions, is between sovereign states. the internet is most like the open seas. cyber agression therefore is most like piracy. the only gain other than piratical acts (ransom, pillaging) is espionage, which is also a non-war action. Internet agression would mostly impact the civilian population (e.g. infrastures such as power, water, banking, etc.); state and army actions against civilian populations are made illegal by the geneva conventions. Hack-based military events would probably be transitive, i.e. malicious code infecting (intentionally or accidentally) a military network or weapon system - which has happened several times already. We must prevent nations/armies from acting based on cyber agression. The internet is non-national - the right for civil society to transit the internet freely must be assured.

randy.r.reveal
randy.r.reveal

Do some research on Rick Rescorla and his predictions. Hollywood embelishes stories but as most people in IT know causing havoc on any computer is possible.

lshanahan
lshanahan

This whole article is one of the stupidest things I've ever read. Wars - especially on the scale of WORLD wars - are political decisions. There have been a number of attacks on various countries - some far more blatant than any scenario posed in the article - over the last several decades that haven't resulted in any kind of war, and those that did result in military action never came close to the scale of a World War. Korea saw forces of major superpowers in direct conflict and "World War III" didn't erupt - and don't think for an instant Truman wasn't considering the use of atomic weapons. The author's statements about the causes of war are even bigger Hollywood hype than WarGames was.

awgiedawgie
awgiedawgie

It's obvious from all the comments that no one has a flogging clue who will start WWIII, but I can tell you one thing - Nigeria will be the country that comes out on top. The widows there have all the money, after all. And I'll be their leader, because they've all offered to send their money to me. Seriously, though - money isn't real anymore, it's just another bit of information. Reality doesn't matter - it's the perception of reality that matters. It's all about who controls the information. Get the right news program to announce that Mel Gibson is the dictator of Florida and he's about to invade Georgia with an army of 42 million Martians, and there are people stupid enough to believe it. Once the people believe a lie, the truth doesn't matter. So it's quite conceivable that a hacker could cause WWIII, simply by manipulating the information. They don't have to penetrate the government's firewall, or launch a missile - all they need to do is get the people to believe a big enough lie.

zazou
zazou

The distance between the possibilities of "a hacker starting a war" and " a hacker stopping a war " are equal. There is a lot of American thinking here. Just because every movie is about starting something doesn't necessarily mean war or maybe it does? A hacker could start peace by disarming certain mechanisms, couldn't he? It is interesting that certain habits rule the perception at every step. Bon giorno.

dhamilt01
dhamilt01

WWIII will start when a terrorist sets off a stolen nuclear device in Washington, DC by using a cell phone to start the triggering mechanism. The U.S. will finally wake up and stop taking this crap from terrorists. They'll launch 4 or 5 thousand of their nukes at all the terrorist targets around the world. Then maybe the rest of the world will stop passively supporting these killers.

faustolg
faustolg

I will say, it's delusional to claim a hacker will do that. This may shock you 1st world countries but the truth is that WW's has always been there to raise money in some countries 1st world countries, because when it comes to world wars the only winner are the countries that make weapons(of course they want to test that weapons) and countries that want to make profit, even if it's necessary, they invent "oppressive dictators" o "lack of democracy" in countries where they can get some valuable resource(ignoring small countries with no resources that have real oppressive-democracy issues), which is the only(after all) cause: MONEY. I won't start pointing fingers, but surely enough I say: A hacker will never start a war, only "the man" starts wars when it's convenient to do so, "the man" will order the president-puppet of some country to start a war, kill some of their citizens(in the name of patriotism or democracy) and make profit. Some of you will think of me as a "liberal" or "communist", which is another way to address people who likes to think by themselves and don't swallow all that s*** the news media has to offer as the truth; Just remember the Weapons of Mass Destruction, as some idiot said: would be found on certain country (which is now in a worst condition than when it was "oppressed"), and the European country that "liberates" countries from "oppression" just to get OIL, err... I mean, just because it's good to put democracy in "some African country with OIL", ignoring all the African countries that have serious problems, but have no oil... I hate to make political speeches but... the truth is: a hacker won't start a war, PERIOD! (unless it's a government hacker) NO! the WWIII will be started by some "republican puppet" but there's is a possibility that a "democrat puppet" will do also; after all "president-puppet" is all what is needed.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Hacking is just a tactics, method of warfare, a weapon. Weapons doesn't cause wars, banks and big money do. That's what you should be concerned about. Hacking is not cause of war, but a consequence. If we manage to prevent it, wars will be waged in some other, possibly more unpleasant and destructive manner.

zalds
zalds

hmmm paranoid or delutional

JamesRL
JamesRL

It is entirely possible, and as time goes on probable, that a future war will be preceded by a cyber attack aimed at disabling crtitical infrastructure prior to a "physical" attack. But that would require the resources available by a country, not a lone wolf individual, to make an attack potent enough to cripple a country.

JamesRL
JamesRL

You assume that just because we haven't had an all out cyber war that we won't. You assume that it would be limited to espionage. You assume too much. Stuxnet has shown us that a nuclear reactor can be targeted and shut down. What if a state or a terrorist organization decided to do that on a larger scale. Shut down the power grid for millions of people. Sabotage Wall Street. Disrupte the military communications system. Would that not be war? Remember we had a cold war for decades.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

"...all they need to do is get the people to disbelieve the Big Lie enough." :p

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...hacker Vs. hacker, wouldn't it? And movies don't mean squat. They just make Hollywood & company richer. Nobody *in their right mind* believes them.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

[i]"The U.S. will ... launch 4 or 5 thousand of their nukes at all the terrorist targets around the world. Then maybe the rest of the world will stop passively supporting these killers."[/i] You do know how to read "these" as an anaphoric pronoun, right?

jkameleon
jkameleon

Nuclear false flag attack will be necessary only if you don't pretend to believe into 9/11 false flag attack convincingly enough.

bboyd
bboyd

Plus it won't use or need any detonation controls, just a truck and a willing martyr. The US won't wake up, it will just reduce its citizens freedoms even more under the guise of security. As for the nukes, we can only launch a thousand or so on command, with secondaries prepared up to near 2 thousand, maybe then reserves weeks later. That is enough to earn the rightful enmity of pretty much every living person on the planet. Don't get me wrong I'm not under the mistaken belief that nuclear war would be world ending. I just know that a thousand cities burning like Dresden is enough death to put the world into a new dark age. Ourselves included. http://www.fas.org/programs/ssp/nukes/nuclearweapons/nukestatus.html

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

The mujihadeen/Taliban, and it's young star (the fighting 'black sheep' of the bin Ladin family, whose fortunes [like those of Halliburton and Schlumberger] rise during and after 'oil-wars') were a forward-looking CIA creation during the Afghan/Soviet war. Noriega was a CIA asset in the Contra 'guns-for-drugs' operation. Saddam Hussein got US arms and CIA intel during the Iran/Iraq war. The beat goes on.....

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Weapons doesn't cause wars, banks and big money do." Like weapons, banks and money are inanimate objects. People cause wars. If hacking is a tactical method, it can't also be a consequence. Wars will be waged in other methods regardless of whether hacking continues. No one forms a military strategy based on a single method of attack.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

The term "hacker" doesn't have to mean a single person, does it? There are many groups out there who might have in their numbers the experts/expertise to mount a concerted effort, perhaps with help from spies or renegades, to break the back of any "secure" system!

femtobeam
femtobeam

At this point it is possible for point to multipoint distribution of an attack to billions of locations. A multipoint to multipoint attack could be from the Chinese Military to the US, for example. A lone wolf attack that is persistent and repetitive can indeed cause havoc. Critical Infrastructure now has to include American Scientists.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

sounds good, let's discuss the specifics :D On the other hand, I guess the superpowers are stockpiling zero-day exploits, since it wouldn't take a lot of "cyber warring" before all the new systems will be hardened from the get go. Then, as in all stand-off warfare, the problem becomes that the attacker will automatically harm their own offensive/deterrant capacity, by attacking. So the payoff has to be worth it. It usually turns out that the payoff is hardly ever worth it, so that's another cold war coming.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

How can we justify killing hundreds of thousands, many of whom are innocent, as revenge for the 9/11 attack which killed 3000? Have we even targeted the right people? Bin Laden and Al Qaeda eventually claimed credit, but almost any Jihadist would have done so, and they're all over the world. Big target, guys. A guaranteed hit, but move out of the way before we nuke you, too.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

When I was young, I thought the term 'warheads' referred to the Joint Chiefs of Staff....

dhamilt01
dhamilt01

Research how many nukes were set off above ground between 1945 and 1963. How many people died due to radiation posioning? One, two, a hundred. Two to four thousand nukes on terrorist targets, some on large cities, might kill 50 million humans tops. Our own human stupidity kills more than 50 million humans around the planet each year. The radiation fallout would be about 10% of what was released in the above ground testing era. Yes major collateral damage would be done (look how fast Japan and Germany recovered after WWII) but ... and it's a big but ... 99% of active terrorists and their supporters would be killed if the nukes are targeted correctly. The result justifies the means. It would be a long, long time before our children and their children would have to worry about another 911.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

should read something by Mary Shelley...

jkameleon
jkameleon

Not hackers, but people in power, people with a lot of money.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

My guess would be that any state action would involve a room full of soldiers infront of computers rather than one nerd in a back office. At this point, we're back to talking about spec-ops and espianage though not "teh 3veel haxorses". In any case like this; it's going to be a politition who started teh war by giving an order anyhow not Corporal Smith spilling his coffee on the keyboard and lauching missiles between third party states "by accident". If we open it up to "groups" not sponsored by a state then we're not talking warefare anymore since warfare is actually defined as "conflict between nation states". This may also be worth a quick read: http://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2011/08/09/hacktivism-hacking-and-hackers/

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

how would you figure you'd get away with it?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

And they'd even survive long enough to train the next generation... which - due to the use of the Bomb - would be incredibly numerous and motivated. Using the bomb would prove once and for all that the US is The Great Devil Which Must Be Purged. Now, that's not something I'd want be proved.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

If you hit sites outside the caves you would render the area impassable for a considerable time, maybe enough to starve the enemy. But the use of nukes isn't excusable, as the "collateral damage" would be intolerable It would just create more enemies than we have already.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

with their tail between their legs! The British did it twice (the second time they got pounded was passing through on their way back from India). I think you're arguing with Dr. Strangelove, Ansu.... ;)

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

if you can achieve the same explosive power with regular bombs. No point in using a nuke, except to make people hate you. If not using nukes will bring the USA to its knees... it was going anyway. Your claim that using nukes is somehow useful in defense or offense is ludicrous at best - insane at worst.

dhamilt01
dhamilt01

You've been listening to media propoganda again haven't you. One in a thousand may live in a cave. 10,000 to a 100,00 of them (and their supporters) live in communities including large cities. That's where they get their support and buy their weapons. Look at all the weapons caches we've found in Afghanistan. Hidden in communities. America will leave Afghanistan with their tail between their legs just like the Russians. This will embolden the terrorists to get a nuke and use it. But don't worry, America will never use a nuke again. And they'll be brought to their knees because of it.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

in reality, nukes aren't that effective. They live in caves, remember? If it was an adobe hut city, sure, a nuke could level it... but so could conventional bombs. Your kind of thinking is exactly why the terrorists have backers. And, frankly, if your plan got close to getting carried out, I'd join them. Because we can't bow down to terrorism.

dhamilt01
dhamilt01

With "smart" bombs, yes targeting is a problem. That's why I said "nukes". Like horse shoes, with the right sized nuke, close counts. I'm willing to have collateral damage as long as the "terrorist(s) get vaporized.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

The trick is that "correctly targeting" issue. They've had trouble with that little detail so far.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

won't secure the Republic against false flag attacks. Invading Poland or France sooner wouldn't have kept the Riechstag from being burned down (and the 'damned trade-unionists et al' from being blamed), either. The purpose of these events is not destruction per se, but to elicit a visceral hate-reaction in the duped populace. We got 40 years between the Gulf of Tonkin and 9/11 (partitioned by the USS Liberty attack, which most Americans know nothing about). Children? OK. Childrens' children? They seem to get their own 'terror attacks' on our current schedule, regardless of their parents' 'pre-emptive anti-terror strikes'. Rid the world of evil with 4,000--5,000 nukes?! That's a culmination of evil; not it's end.

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

I've always considered F-stein's 'monster', like King Kong, a brutish, misunderstood victim of circumstances far beyond his making or control (WE were the monsters in both tales, weren't we?). The characters you invoked just now were the ones who came running, eager to play the role and conspire with their creators/handlers. It generally ends badly for such 'CIA clients', but that doesn't keep the applicants away. I felt sorry for the fictional 'monsters'; never have for the human ones. :)

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Noriega? Saddam? Osama? Pinochet? Same thing. And like the spawn of F, they end up deciding to simply kill off the ones who don't seem to love them. :D Like father like son.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The people making up rank and file. They don't care about much of that. They just don't want to be victimized, and want to have stuff they see others having.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

is without any doubt, one of many causes, but religious beliefs and a desire for added or even "absolute" power, or simply a desire to eliminate some perceived enemy threat would be as well.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

J.P. Morgan was involved with creating this wonderful economic "crisis in a box", now as a corporate entity. There's hope for Apple then, if the spirit of a founder can live so long in a company...

jkameleon
jkameleon

... but there are still 99% of bad apples who give the rest of nabobs a bad name. You can't tell for sure which fat cat invests his money into wars, because they don't brag about it publically. We can learn much more from history. Here's a list of people, who brought Hitler to power, for example: http://geschichteinchronologie.ch/eu/3R/Hitlers-financiers-ENGL.html Henry Ford, a couple of Rockefellers, J.P.Morgan... quite impressive. And that's how their money was spent: -- financing of mass movement -- financing of a private army (SA, "brownshirts") with rising memberships (numbers of members: 1924: 30,000; 1930: 80,000; 1932: 220,000; 1933: 400,000; 1934: appr. 4,000,000) -- financing of propaganda inclusive major events with 100,000 participants -- edition of a magazine "Ethnic Observer" (orig. German: "Vlkischer Beobachter") first two times a week, then daily -- purchase of luxury party headquarters, thousands of flags and two air planes. A 100000 men goon army can bang into people's heads any ideology, no matter how stupid it might be. Literally.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Wow. That I didn't know. :p Of course, someone could say that the mis-distribution of wealth creates the climate for war... and the ones with all the money are sort of symptomatic of that mistribution.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Not everyone with lots of money or power is interested in starting wars. Not even a majority of them. Warren Buffett, the Walton family, Bill Gates, Prince Charles,

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Go to military colledge; enter the military as an officer. Not everyone works there way up the chain of command.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

" making them alternately defend and attack the systems, either trying to find signs of attack (useful) or trying to find weaknesses to exploit (also useful). Hackers would get a kick out of that, I think. " I suspect gov Hackers both natural and manufactured do indeed get a kick out of it and I'm sure that is what attracted people to the job. They've actually been doing this very thing; "Tiger Team" and "Red Team" are terms that naturally evolved to include information systems after years of running physical pentests against there own assets. As for conditioning, the rank and file infantry soldier may indeed be over-conditioned so endure the mental stress of combat and follow orders in combat but the spec ops folks are conditioned to think creatively. "Improvise" is the order of the day when The Plan falls through but the objective must still be obtained. Granted, I think much of this in relation to infosec is actually ignoring the problem to go play in a sandbox; fix the shoddy infosec standards we accept in products and systems and much of it goes away. The potential for espionage and sabotage is enabled by stupidity like running military drones on Windows instead of a purpose dedicated custom OS implementation.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

without going through the lower? Academies are for conditioning, too. Hackers question things. It's not something the military condones.

Papa_Bill
Papa_Bill

...thousands of civilian experts, consultants and contractors working for them, and even if they didn't find sufficient ability among them would have no problem recruiting them from industry. As far as "conditioning" people, that's for the lower ranks. Officers are better educated, many are computer experts themselves. Without the usual need for Pentagon - style decision-making, these officers are quite capable of rational thought and will apply themselves to the matter at hand as needed. Under-rating them would be a serious tactical error. Just leave the d**m politicians out of it.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

But they don't/can't know that they need hackers. The military is greatly about conditioning people, so all the decision makers have been conditioned by the system in place... to the point where they can't understand the need for the unconditioned. Would be cool if they did create a digital spec ops section; take in some talented people and make them train like all get out... making them alternately defend and attack the systems, either trying to find signs of attack (useful) or trying to find weaknesses to exploit (also useful). Hackers would get a kick out of that, I think.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Given the staggering over-sites in computer security in recent years, the US military need real Hackers; folks who will lock down information systems and make sure default passwords are not left in place. :D I don't think disobedience would be an issue really either as they are not conscripted. Red Beard is one fellow who was approached and declined the job offer. Rejection is more likely than mutiny.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

They prefer to issue arms to people more obedient than any hacker could ever be. Ten hut! Here's your assault rifle. Ten hut! Here's your Apache. Ten hut! Here are your scripts and linkups.