War in the cyber space?

It is already one year since the opening day of the Beijing Olympics, and more pertinently, it has been a year since the war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A Georgian blogger has pointed his finger at the Russian government for conducting DDoS attacks against his blogs and entries, which crashed Facebook, LiveJournal and Twitter.

These attacks have highlighted the vulnerability of these sites, and they will have to consider what measures they can take to prevent such occurrences. Given the importance of these sites for many people, such attacks disrupt people’s lives.

There is no clear evidence to back up the blogger’s claim, and it does rather raise the question why a government would attack social networking sites. It is not like in Iran where protesters were planning their next move on Twitter. There seems little military or strategic reason or rationale for the Russian government to go in an all-out attack, and it seems all heavy-handed. It will make a lot of people cross, not being able to catch up what someone had for breakfast, but seriously, what can you gain more than that? Indeed, with these sites down, productivity may have gone up. Anyway, put it this way: disrupting the Pentagon’s website, as reportedly North Koreans have done recently, makes much more sense, than going after someone’s blog, however influential it may be.

Assuming, for argument’s sake, that this attack was not conducted by the government or its agencies (I’m not discouting totally the possibility that the Russian government was somehow involved), there is a worrying potential for a bunch of cyber para-military operators to disrupt their enemies. These people, out of patriotism or hatred for the enemy, think they are doing service to their country by co-ordinating cyber attacks. The government may nod in approval, while not directly involved in such attacks.

Like any other weaponry, though, there is always a risk with this kind of diffusion of means of cyber warfare and force. There is no state monopoly of cyber violence. Governments will not be able to stop individuals and groups that easily from starting cyber attacks, and given the increasing dependence on the cyber-space, a war can be started by non-governmental groups, but can end up in a real war between states. Far-fetched? Perhaps it is, but I think there are real potential dangers here.