Cyber war ‘more deadly’ than nuclear weapons

Remote control: What if this missile test in Scotland was being controlled by an enemy?

Britain’s foremost military historian and the world’s leading expert on internet security both warned last week the next global conflict will be a cyberwar that could annihilate humanity.

‘The next major war will not be fought with guns, ships and missiles. It will be a cyber war with far more devastation than could possibly be achieved by our combined nuclear arsenals. Or if conventional weapons are used, they are likely to be our own, turned against ourselves.’

This is the chilling warning not just of any over-excited doom-monger but of John McAfee, the multimillionaire creator of the world’s first anti-virus programme and one of the most high-profile commentators on cybersecurity anywhere in the world. (He has just announced that he will be running for US president in 2016).

His alarm was supported last week by a very different voice. At the age of 92, Professor Sir Michael Howard is Britain’s foremost military historian who arguably knows more about war than anyone living: he has fought in one, immersed himself in the study of more, and has devoted his life to exploring man’s strange and fascinating habit of starting, fighting, winning, and losing wars.

‘We’re only just beginning to see the edge of a situation in which an entire city — an entire country and its civil infrastructure — can be brought to a dead halt with the destruction of an entire electrical system, wiped out by a geeky young man in a back bedroom pressing the right buttons,’ he said.

A speaker at a recent military symposium brooded over how best nowadays to destroy Southampton. One choice would be with a nuclear bomb. But a far more effective one, with almost zero risk of counter-attack, would be a cyberattack on the electricity grid, frying power stations, closing down the banks and the supermarket supply chains and creating social meltdown.

But cyber warriors can use conventional weapons too. In one imaginary disaster scenario, hackers from China took control of Britain’s nuclear missiles, launched them and then turned them round to annihilate the UK.

Rapid reaction

‘Relax’, some say. For every hostile hacker we have our own scientists working on counter-hacking. This is just like every other war in which like is pitted against like and you end up with a stalemate.

‘Too complacent’ say others. China is poised to play a pivotal role in Britain’s energy supply. After helping to build Hinkley Point, it believes it will be in pole position to modernise nuclear power stations. Britain should draw up a list of its most strategically sensitive civilian assets and exclude potential hostile countries from bidding for construction and management contracts. And cyber defence should be top of the agenda in the government’s forthcoming strategic defence review.

You Decide

  1. Do we worry too much?
  2. Should we fear cyber warfare more than nuclear weapons?

Activities

  1. Imagine a cyber attack on your home. Write 200 words describing it to your best friend.
  2. In pairs, research a recent major hacking scandal from the news. Make a short presentation to the class describing what happened.

Some People Say...

“The world never gets safer, only more dangerous every decade.”

What do you think?

Q & A

A crazy US hacking expert who thinks he should be US president and a 92-year-old professor? Is this serious?
Good challenge! It is a sensible idea to question the sources of such alarming stories. You should bear in mind, though, that although these two are the main people quoted in this story, there are countless others out there -- politicians, writers, politicians and generals included -- who are making similar warnings.
Anyway, what can I do about it, even if it is serious?
Not much. But you can check out the links under Become An Expert and form an educated opinion on the actual risks of cyberwar. The debate is bound to come up among your friends one day. Knowing a bit about it will make you far more interesting than anyone who is making it up as they go along.

Word Watch

Cyber
It simply means that which relates to computers and the digital world, including virtual reality and information technology.
Conventional
Material weapons such as guns, missiles, tanks and bombs.
Infrastructure
The basic physical structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.