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Institute for National




Chapter 9


Of the seven forms of information warfare, cyberwarfare -- a broad category that includes information terrorism, semantic attacks, simula-warfare and Gibson-warfare -- is clearly the least tractable because by far the most fictitious, differing only in degree from information warfare as a whole. The global information infrastructure has yet to evolve to the point where any of these forms of combat is possible; such considerations are akin to discussions in the Victorian era of what air-to-air combat would be. And the infrastructure may never evolve to enable such attacks. The dangers or, better, the pointlessness, of building the infrastructure described below may be visible well before the opportunity to build it will present itself.

Information Terrorism

Although terrorism is often understood as the application of random violence against apparently arbitrary targets, when terrorism works it does so because it is directed against very specific targets, often by name. In the early days of the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong terrorized specific village leaders to coerce their acquiescence. Done well, threats can be effective, even if carried out infrequently; targeted officials can be forced to accede to terrorists and permit their reach to spread. As the term is used here, information terrorism is a subset of computer hacking, aimed not at disrupting systems but at exploiting them to attack individuals.

What would the analogy for information war be to that kind of terrorism? Note 59 Targeting individuals by attacking their data files requires certain presuppositions about the environment in which those individuals exist. Targeted victims must have potentially revealing files on themselves stored in public or quasi-public hands (e.g., TRW's credit files) in a society where the normal use of these files is either legal or benign (otherwise, sensitive individuals would take pains to leave few data tracks). Today, files cover health, education, purchases, governmental interactions (e.g., court appearances), and other data. Some are kept manually or are computerized but inaccessible to the outside, yet in time most will reside on networks. Tomorrow, files could include user-built agents capable of interacting with net-defined services and therefore containing a reliable summary of the user's likes, dislikes, and predilections. Note 60

The problem in conducting information terrorism is having to know what to do with the information collected. Many people, for instance, might be embarrassed if the information in their collected datasphere were opened to public view; but that does not necessarily make them good objects for blackmail. Similarly, the hassle created by erroneous entries in a person's files might be significant, but threatening to put them there has only limited coercive appeal (a person so threatened could seek to limit the damage by requesting repeated backups of existing data to archival media along with the demand that all incoming data must be authenticated).

If information terrorism is to succeed, a more plausible response than fear of compromise might be anger at the institutions that permitted files to be mishandled. Before a systematic reign of computer terror could bring about widespread compromise of enough powerful individuals it would probably lead to restrictive (perhaps welcome) rules on the way personal files are handled.

Semantic attack

The difference between a semantic attack and hacker warfare is that the latter produces random, or even systematic, failures in systems, and they cease to operate. A system under semantic attack operates and will be perceived as operating correctly (otherwise the semantic attack is a failure), but it will generate answers at variance with reality.

The possibility of a semantic attack presumes certain characteristics of the information systems. Systems, for instance, may rely on sensor input to make decisions about the real world (e.g., nuclear power system that monitors seismic activity). If the sensors can be fooled, the systems can be tricked (e.g., shutting down in face of a nonexistent earthquake). Safeguards against failure might lie in, say, sensors redundant by type and distribution, aided by a wise distribution of decisionmaking power among humans and machines.

Future systems may try to learn from their info-sphere. A health server might poll participating physicians to collect histories, on the basis of which the server would constantly compute and recompute the efficacy of drugs and protocols. A semantic attack on this system would feed the server bad data, perhaps discounting the efficacy of one nostrum or creating false claims for another. Similarly, a loan server could monitor the world's financial transactions for continuing guidelines about which financial instruments merit trust. If banking server systems work the way bankers do, a rush of business to a particular institution could confer legitimacy upon the institution, and if that rush of business were phony and the institution a Potempkin savings and loan, the rush of legitimate business, by bytes and wire, could result in a rapid decrementation of assets by supporting banks. This scenario is similar to what allowed Penn Square bank in Oklahoma to buffalo many other banks that should have known better. In cyberspace, fraud can occur more quickly than human oversight can detect.

Is a semantic attack a worrying prospect? Few servers like those just described exist. By the time they will, enough thinking should have gone on to develop appropriate safeguards, such as digital signatures, to repel spoofing and enough built-in human oversight to weed out data that computers accept as real but a human eye would reject as phony.


Real combat is dirty, dull, and, yes, dangerous. Simulated conflict is none of those. If the fidelity of the simulation is good enough -- and it is improving every year -- the results will be a reasonable approximation of conflict. Why not dispense with the real thing and stick to simulated conflict? Put less idealistically, could fighting a simulated war prove to the enemy that it will lose?

The dissuasive aspect of simulation warfare is an extension, in a sense, of the tendency to acquire weapons for more demonstration than for use, the battleship being perhaps a prime example. Had the United States possessed more atomic weapons during World War II, it might have chosen to light the first off Tokyo harbor for effect rather than in Hiroshima for results. The use of single champions rather than full armies to conduct conflict has both Biblical and Classical antecedents, even if the practice has now fallen into disuse. The gap between these practices and simulated conflict, with both sides agreeing to accept the result, would be a chasm.

Unfortunately, the realities of war and the fantasies of simulation make poor bedfellows. Environments tailor-made for simulation are composed of individual elements, each of which can be characterized by behavior but whose interaction is complex; for this reason, air tunnels simulate well. In tomorrow's hide-and-seek conflict, it will be almost impossible to characterize the attributes of combat. Much of warfare will depend on each side's ability to fool the other, to learn systematically from what works well and what poorly, to disseminate the results into doctrine, and, by so doing, to move up the sophistication of the game notch after notch. These operations are precisely the ones least amenable to simulation.

Needless to add, in the unlikely event that both sides own up to the capability and number of their systems and the strategies by which these are deployed, would the hiding or finding qualities of these systems be honestly portrayed? Mutual simulation requires adversaries to agree on what each side's systems can do. The reader may be forgiven for wondering whether two sides capable of this order of trust could be even more capable of resolving disputes short of war.

The attractiveness of today's simulation technology is its ability to model the battlefield from the viewpoint of every operator. Marrying operators and complex platforms in simulation is being promoted just when operators and their complex platforms are shuffling off the combat stage. Information systems, and over-the- horizon weaponry are more and more what war is about; and they are largely self-simulating systems.

A less ridiculous version of the game -- and one that forgoes computer simulation -- tests the hiding and finding systems in the real world but replaces real munitions with virtual ones -- e.g., laser tag equivalents. Private war games and the National Training Center do this. That no war in memory has ever been replaced by a war game casts doubt on whether, despite great advances in simulation, any future war will be either.


The author confesses to having read William Gibson's Neuromancer Note 61 and, worse, to having seen the Disney movie "TRON." In both, heroes and villains are transformed into virtual characters who inhabit the innards of enormous systems and there duel with others equally virtual, if less virtuous. What these heroes and villains are doing inside those systems or, more to the point, why anyone would wish to construct a network that would permit them to wage combat there in the first place is never really clear.

Why bring up Gibson's novel and the Disney movie? Because to judge what otherwise sober analysts choose to include as information warfare -- such as hacker warfare or esoteric versions of psychological warfare -- the range of what can be included in its definition is hardly limited by reality.

The Internet and its imitators have produced virtual equivalents of the real world's sticks and stones. Women have complained of virtual stalkers and sexual harassers; flame wars in the global village are as intense and maybe as violent as the village gossip they have supplanted; agent technology, coming soon, permits a user to launch a simulacrum into the net, armed with its master's wants and needs, to make reservations, acquire goods, hand over assets, and, with work, to negotiate terms for enforceable contracts. What conceptual distance separates an agent capable of negotiating terms from another capable of negotiating concepts, hence, conducting a discussion? What will prevent an agent from conducting an argument? Arguments may require the support of allies, perhaps other agents wandering the net, who may be otherwise engaged in booking the best Caribbean vacation but who have spare bandwidth available for engaging in sophomoric colloquy. Allies might then form on the other side. The face off of allies and adversaries, of course, equals conflict and perhaps even a disposition of goods and services that will depend on the outcome. Thus, war, in the guise of information war, even while the originators of the argument are fast asleep.

Possible? Actually, yes. Relevant to national security? Not soon.

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