Battlestar Galactica: A fictional view of cyber warfare and technological conflict

As the television show Battlestar Galactica completes its final season I thought it might be interesting to look back on the opening of the show to those first few episodes. I have discussed in the past how science fiction can inform our ideas about the future. I find that is incredibly interesting that Battlestar Galactica depicts cyber warfare as part of hybrid strategy in the opening of the original mini-series. A network attack against the defense mechanisms of the different colonies allows the Cylon adversaries to attack with nuclear weapons destroying in near totality the human populations.

A fictional civilization having fought one huge war against a technologically superior enemy is faced with an unexpected attack that breaks a peace accord. We only learn later that an outside entity was responsible for the original ceasefire (The final 5). What we do learn is that the method of attack was not unknown. The human civilization had fought against just such cyber attacks in the past and had rules in place to protect against them. The centralization of resources, the networking of systems, and the offloading of human cognitive power to machines was anathema to the military.  The attack used the embedded sensor networks and control systems to relay false information to the computer systems. Yet after decades of relative peace exactly the types of technological “enhancements” occur which allow for wholesale destruction.

Throughout the 70+ episodes we get elements of the back-story that illuminate the relevant issues. This could be considered an anti-technology bias but we are talking about a civilization that has faster-than-light space travel. We are also talking about not the absence of computing power but the idea of secure computing practices.

In the first Cylon war networked computer systems were eschewed for human powered cognition.  The reason the Battlestar Galactica survives the second Cylon war is that it is an antique and an original survivor of the first war with the Cylons. The newer battlestar ships have extensive computing networks and after those networks are destroyed by the Cylons they are rendered defenseless and destroyed by kinetic means. Though the newer ships might be more powerful than Galactica they are useless without their computer networks and control systems. We might compare the battleship Missouri or Iowa to the DDG 1000 destroyer as an example of the difference in technology levels.  Currently there are no equivalents to the battleship in active service which is an interesting thought too. We can look at the relative power and technological sophistication being weighed with the sustainability and reliability of the differing systems. I won’t even bring up what has happened in sea trials with the San Antonio as an example of new technology and military business practices.

In the second Cylon war the realities of cyber warfare are realized when an insider corrupts the software of military defense embedded computing systems. This is not some high-powered technically sophisticated corruption of systems but the oldest form of attack possible. A pretty woman attached to an egocentric businessman uses insider knowledge to infect the defense systems. With the ability to infect the systems of the humans the Cylons were able to wage war effectively and with total surprise. Once again this is a hybrid strategy where cyber attacks enhance the effects or assures the capacity of kinetic results.

The military defense systems are controlled by a single source profit driven vendor Gaius Baltar who in the name of progress gives up on previous generations prohibitions on networked systems. He is seen engaging in ad hominem attack against traditionalists concerns on television the day of the attack. His assertions of the ultimate security of his systems reek of the arrogance found in some real world technologists and vendors.  The mono-culture of the defense systems acquisition cycle also show the inherent weaknesses of that model. Automation can decrease security and resiliency just as fast as it increases profit and cost savings. This is the common trap of running defense or information technology as a business.

On March 19th, 2009 Dr. Joseph Weiss discussed the issues surrounding control systems and the abhorrent lack of security in a senate commerce committee hearing.  He was not far off in many of his assertions that little to no security is applied to these elements. I think he was mistaken in his description of industry and the relationship of computer science and information technology. In the real world the information technology professional often will deal with anything that has a wire. From low voltage to high voltage, heating and cooling systems, and even water meters and gas meters the information technology professional is often the first call. The primary reason for the span of roles in information technology is ubiquity and pervasiveness of the network. The same issue the Cylons exploited in Battlestar Galactica. 

Dr. Eugene Spafford at the same hearing testified about education and the research agenda for the future. His depiction of the state of things mirrors many of my own concerns. I believe though that we need to consider some of the systemic issues and not unlike some of the themes in Battlestar Galactica we may need to decouple systems that are so tightly integrated. We may need to build security into the systems of the future but we also need to control the span of risk we allow. Good security practices may mean not just better systems but keeping humans in the loop. Automation practices create inherent risks to resiliency and sustainability. 

Science fiction has always looked at the human condition and attempted to figure out how technology and science may effect that state. Though the fan base will be excessively vocal as Battlestar Galactica ends this season regardless of what ending is shown. It will be the opening episodes and the sophistication of the cyber attack beginning the war that will be of interest to me. Fantastical in scope of story and over the top in social commentary are common critical comments of Battlestar Galactica. Yet even today experts are discussing exactly the types of issues that took down the fictional civilization. The war games that military planners use are no less fictional than the story of Battlestar Galactica, and though likely planned the did expose an interesting scenario to be considered.

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