Cyberspace should not be used for warfare

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By EZEKIEL MUTUA

The scriptures teach us that mankind is a fallen creature in dire need of salvation by forces that are infinitely greater and better than it. Whatever faith or creed we profess (or don\’t, as the case might be), we are all keenly aware that mankind is far short of perfection and grace.

This is amply illustrated in the way in which mankind subverts its own best interests and advances, almost without fail, particularly in the technological sphere. Take the story of aviation, for instance.

For centuries and in all cultures and places, mankind wished it could fly like the birds of the air and dreamed about it all the time. Within a few years of the first recorded heavier-than-air manned flight, by the world famous Wright brothers (Orville and Wilbur) on December 17, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, USA, mankind had weaponised aviation, launching air forces, aerial bombing and machine-gunning.

In four years\’ time, the world will mark the centenary of one of mankind\’s most dubious distinctions – World War I, the first planet-scale conflict in history. It was also the first man-made mega death event, killing at least 16 million and wounding 21 million; a total of 37 million casualties and decimating a generation of young men in Britain and mainland Europe.

A great part of that murder and mayhem was facilitated by the weaponisation of aviation.

Almost a century later, mankind made three other truly great inventions – the personal computer, the mobile phone and the Internet, in that order over the space of a decade.

When these three were converged, including in various handheld devices such as smart phones and iPads, the human race suddenly had the greatest repository of knowledge and data ever compiled and an unprecedented generator of wealth.

As the Third Millennium progresses and the Internet becomes refined to many times its early powers and capabilities, it will take mankind to places we have yet to dream of or yearn for. The Internet and the fourth dimension that it has brought forth in barely two decades – cyberspace – were built on communities of trust, mutuality and resilience.

But it is now becoming clear that it was not built with maximum security in mind. Perhaps it is even the case that such security is neither necessarily desirable nor possible.

As the WikiLeaks case has amply demonstrated, a new kind of world war looms four years before the first centenary after the First World War. And it looms in, of all places, cyberspace. By all accounts, cy¬berspace is becoming weaponised.

Take the case of the Stuxnet computer virus, on which global TV and online broadcaster Aljazeera reported exclusively in September, saying: "Stuxnet has been described as a new class of computer virus, the most refined piece of malware ever discovered; the world\’s first cyber super-weapon.
 
It is now the focus of a computer virus conference in Canada and a cyber security drill in the US. Stuxnet is the first known computer worm or virus capable of taking control of entire national industrial infrastructure systems and endangering the well-being of millions.

For instance, it is capable of disabling "the safety systems at a nuclear power plant, contaminating freshwater supplies at a treatment facility, or taking over control of oil or gas pipelines". It could also take over and confuse airport flight control mechanisms both on the ground and aboard aircraft, or ships at sea, including warships and submarines.
 
Aljazeera revealed that the virus has been detected on many computers in India and Indonesia. And then came the clincher – Stuxnet has also been found in computers in an Iranian nuclear facility! This is truly frightening, indeed heart-stopping.
 
Among other things, it means that, assuming Iran soon develops a nuclear weapon, mischief-makers, in remote locations far away from Iran, can override the fail-safe systems in the Iranian nuclear programme and bring about a crisis of total international confusion with casualties being counted in the mega death leagues before sanity prevails again.

Must every discovery that we make as a race and which has the capacity to bring about the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people on this planet have to be turned into aggressive warfare purpose?

Shakespeare was spot-on when he made Mark Antony say, in Act 3, scene 11 of Julius Caesar: "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones".  The other face of Infowar was provided this year by Julian Paul Assange and his whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, which twice severely embarrassed the Barack Obama administration (and many other regimes around the world), by spilling military, diplomatic and intelligence secrets onto the Internet.

Like the shadowy creators of the Stuxnet virus, Assange and WikiLeaks are also basically computer hackers, invading other people\’s systems and harvesting sensitive information and data.  I completely agree with the German newspaper Der Spiegel\’s characterisation of Assange\’s activities as the "hacker ethic", blurring the thin but crucial line between opening up information in ways both good and bad.

WikiLeaks raised profound questions about freedom of expression, information openness, access to data, transparency and technology that will not be resolved at any time soon.

WikiLeaks\’s website came under a barrage of hacking attacks, some of them almost certainly the work of intelligence and other government agencies, again a species of war waged in cyberspace.
 
This is why militarising cyberspace will soon be recognised and condemned for what it is – an abhorrent abomination and the first digital crime against humanity that might spell a death knell to mankind in the twinkling of an eye.

The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya.

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