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Cyber warfare

In The Information Bomb (Verso, 2005, p. 62), Paul Virilio says the following: “ ‘He who knows everything fears nothing,’ claimed Joseph Paul Goebbels not so long ago. From now on, with the putting into orbit of a new kind of panoptical control, he who sees everything – or almost everything – will have nothing more to fear from his immediate competitors. You will, in fact, understand nothing of the information revolution if you are unable to divine that it ushers in, in purely cybernetic fashion, the revolution of generalized snooping.”

If one considers that this book appeared in French in 1998, it says a lot for Virilio’s acute sense of the connection between technological and social change. I have written on the significance of Virilio’s work for understanding the Wikileaks phenomenon on this site before and the similarity between the revelations by Wikileaks at the time, and the Snowden saga unfolding at present, will not escape many people.

When I returned to Virilio’s text today something else struck me, however – not just his astonishing clairvoyance in anticipating an era of “generalized snooping”, but something more serious, albeit related. In the earlier post I quoted Virilio as saying (p. 63): “After the first bomb, the atom bomb, which was capable of using the energy of radioactivity to smash matter, the spectre of a second bomb is looming at the end of this millennium. This is the information bomb, capable of using the interactivity of information to wreck the peace between nations.”

A few pages further (p. 67), after elaborating on “economic warfare” disguised as “the greatest freedom of communication”, on interactive advertising, “optical snooping” via surveillance cameras, and on “temporal compression” through advanced technological devices, he remarks: “The smaller the world becomes as a result of the relativistic effect of telecommunications, the more violently situations are concentrated, with the risk of an economic and social crash that would merely be the extension of the visual crash of this ‘market of the visible’, in which the virtual bubble of the (interconnected) financial markets is never any other than the inevitable consequence of that visual bubble of a politics which has become both panoptical and cybernetic.”

But politics is, as Foucault observed (reversing Von Clausewitz’s famous dictum), the continuation of war by different means. It should therefore surprise no one that cyber warfare (a metonymy for cyber politics and cyber snooping) is today considered a likely mode of outright international conflict. So much so that a simulated cyber attack has been planned for June 28 (2013) in the US, with 40 companies ranging from the Federal Reserve and Bank of America to the Securities and Exchange Commission participating. The aim is (as with most drills) to prepare for the real McCoy, if and when it comes, by testing various courses of evasive action or defence options.

Seen against the backdrop of the recent whistle-blowing news about the US National Security Agency spying on individuals by accessing their electronic communications with the cooperation of companies such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook, this may seem ironic – the establishment preparing to defend itself against cyber attacks or cyber snooping, while arrogating to itself the right to do so with impunity. Unfortunately, however, ordinary citizens would also suffer if such cyber attacks were to be carried out. Consider the following list of examples of cyber warfare provided by Margaret Rouse three years ago already:

• “In 1998, the United States hacked into Serbia’s air defence system to compromise air traffic control and facilitate the bombing of Serbian targets.
• In 2007, in Estonia, a botnet of over a million computers brought down government, business and media websites across the country. The attack was suspected to have originated in Russia, motivated by political tension between the two countries.
• Also in 2007, an unknown foreign party hacked into high tech and military agencies in the United States and downloaded terabytes of information.
• In 2009, a cyber-spy network called “GhostNet” accessed confidential information belonging to both governmental and private organisations in over 100 countries around the world. GhostNet was reported to originate in China, although that country denied responsibility.”

These examples clearly illustrate that cyber shenanigans are not restricted to the cyber-sphere of the internet in their effects; far from it. Virilio’s foresight regarding the crashes that could conceivably result from “cybernetic politics” (a mode of war, in Foucault’s view) is vindicated by the fact that the economies, and therefore the social life of entire countries could be brought to a standstill by “successful” cyber attacks on various interlinked networks. Small wonder that, since about 2010, the threat of cyber attacks on US communications networks has been regarded as potentially “crippling” by many security “experts”, and more recently as a more serious menace than “terrorism” in the usual sense.

There is a growing awareness of the cyber-domain being the probable terrain for a more serious kind of “warfare” than the low-level kind which has been going on for some time. The fact that texts have already been published on this topic is symptomatic of this awareness. These include Richard Clarke’s Cyber War as well as Jeffrey Carr’s Inside Cyber Warfare, where (according to Rouse), he tellingly compares the internet’s “enabling potential” to the handgun’s, which has been dubbed “the great equaliser”. What this means is that anyone – from individuals to governments and corporations – can launch a cyber attack on anyone else, and it should not be surprising that virtually every country and corporation in the world is aware of this.

How else could one explain Iran’s claim that it has one of the biggest “cyber-armies” in the world, information that China hopes to win “information wars” by mid-21st century, and that countries such as the UK and the US, Russia, North Korea and Israel are all preparing for the eventuality of cyber war?

Arguably, it has been under way for some time; according to some reports, a country like Israel has to defend itself against as many as 100 cyber attacks a day. Not only the writings of Virilio in the 90s alerted one to the likelihood of this happening; Manuel Castells’ work on The Rise of the Network Society (first edition 1996) similarly pointed in this direction with his concept of the “space of flows” as the dominant spatial mode today.

This concept encapsulates every aspect of contemporary social, cultural, economic and political exchanges – which means, of course, war as well. Just think: with the exception of small pockets of indigenous cultural groups scattered around the world, the entire globe’s informationalised economy (the basis for social existence in its present, but not necessarily future, form) is dependent on computer networks. If you doubt this, recall the frustration experienced when “the network is down” at the bank, and you cannot do the transactions you have to do.

In sum, whether we like it or not, the very same technology that has enabled one the luxury of quasi-instantaneous communication worldwide, comes at a price. It is no accident that it was originally developed by and for the US military. Like all technology, it is a double-edged sword, or rather, a “pharmakon” – simultaneously cure and poison.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.