Syria: What the conflict is teaching us about hacking

In this day and age we all know about hackers and identity theft.  Any of us who have lost a wallet, had one stolen or had our identity stolen, know how miserable it is to pick up the pieces.  But have we thought about how hackers can affect the world’s balance of power?  This week, the government of Syria hacked into Reuters to send out false announcements of their defeat of the anti-Assad forces.  The hacking was discovered, but what would have happened if it hadn’t been?  Just imagine how systematic and repeated hacking could change the balance of power in any complex and chaotic situation.

In Syria, either side, if successful and constant, could influence the military outcome.  If the rebels do a great job, they might be able to influence a palace coup.  If the government does a great job of hacking, they might convince the outside sources of funding and weapons to dry up or the rebels to give up hope.  Either side has a new weapon of warfare.  As the old intelligence world called it “psy ops” i.e. psychological warfare.

And it doesn’t stop in civil wars.  Think about what would happen in the U.S. if hackers gained access to large private sector institutions.  They could crash the stock market and turn off all electricity  (And, yes, future Alex Garfield plots include variations of these, so be prepared.)  The U.S. — just like all the governments of the world — is vulnerable not just through its own departments — Defense, Social Security, Federal Reserve — where it can install the best of the best safeguards, but the private sector is equally vulnerable.  For instance, if three of the largest banks in the U.S. were hacked successfully at the same time, the economy could easily crash.

Or think about what is happening to our universities, businesses, corporations when foreign governments encourage hacking as part of the new espionage game.  Ideas, copyrights, patents can all be stolen and the companies that developed them are the victims.  We know that this affects the cost of our products and industries but we have no idea to the full extent since the hackers are very hard to find and prosecute.  Plus, companies don’t like to publicize hacks for fear of losing clients.  (The House of Representatives passed a bi-partisan law, Cyber Information Sharing and Protection Act of 2012, dealing with this very specific issue but the Senate has yet to bring it up for a vote.)

The conundrum in the modern world is that we all love the accessibility that the Internet and social media give us, but it brings with it great risks that most of us cannot even begin to fathom.  However, we can’t roll back the clock.  The next time you are highly annoyed by security rules on your computer, tablet, or phone, remember that there is a great reason for them – even the tough security cannot always stop the abuse of the hacker.  Or when you are incredibly frustrated when the voice on the other end of the phone asks you yet another security question about your favorite pet, use the time to think of a wonderful twisted plot and send it to me!

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