How to wage cyber warfare: The super empowered individual, Part 8

The nation state as an entity is a conglomeration of power and social structure having a history stretching back to the Westphalian peace and treaty. This concept of nations rises out of western tradition that had recognized empires previously but began to create borders and gather the city-state around the more regionalized powers. This is a gross simplification of the process, but for our purposes justified by the larger idea. As we know nations now, could an individual, challenge their power and inflict grievous harm, without being beholden to another nation or using their resources? As a simple example, should I as an individual go to evil despots country and push the giant red button unleashing nuclear Armageddon, I as an individual may have taken action but it was using another nations power. An interesting corollary is the idea of insurgencies and guerilla groups who use a nation states power or weapons against that central seat of power. As a further example should I create a bunch of nuclear bombs and keep them in the basement I might be able to force a nuclear détente’ of some sorts for a short time.  Not likely though. Note to Homeland Security. I don’t have a basement, and I’m allergic to radiation.

The individual is an interesting phenomenon. Not all societies even acknowledge the individual and some revere it to the point of unsustainable action. The Geerte-Hofstede index is a good example showing collectivist cultures versus independent cultures in stark light and with multiple other elements to compare against. As such, the rise of a independent entity taking on the nation-state, is both cherished and terrorizing at the same time. The individual represents in some cultures nearly the embodiment of evil and narcissism and in other cultures the preeminent expectation of societal goals. Then there is the variety that sets between these extremes. The technological culture that has advanced computer communications and cyber space perhaps due to their adventuresome spirit has a high level of independence and value towards the individual.

It should be obvious that technology is a force multiplier in any kind of conflict. The counter examples being a very small number, but revolving around superior tactics, terrain, and morale. Technology advancement has been a primary point of United States military power for a long time. Bullets can be very effective against those without them. Bombs, anti-radar technology, the continuing advancement of waging conflict marches forward making the individual a more effective combatant at each evolutionary step. The blind and silly would not consider that in cyber conflict that control by appropriately trained individuals would not represent a grave threat. The computer networks, processing power, and storage mechanisms’ of a technologically sophisticated nation are inherently vulnerable to attacks against the command and control systems. In a fusion of the ideas of low-intensity conflict such as guerilla warfare or small wars, and a spectrum of conflict from talking mean to each other and blowing things up. Cyber warfare and the individual make a giant leap forward in capability. Cyber warfare can mean the embodiment of the individual as an army.

The relative superiority of national and organized force will keep the individual from rising in the open to challenge that superiority. The individual using cyber assets will only be empowered through guile. Most nations simply would not stand for an entity able to challenge their power domestically. A safe haven for an individual would be difficult to find. Whereas, it might seem terrible and risky for the individual to rise in capability there is an interesting issue. The individual through treaties and international law is protected from the might of a nation state. Nations rarely wage war on a person. Organizations can be labeled as terrorist targets, leaders can embody the issues of political discord, but in general the principle is that the combatants are treaty capable organizations. Everything below the level of nation-state is basically organized crime or general strife. In other words the activities not considered rising to the level of war.

Thomas Friedman wrote about the “super empowered individual” in the “Lexus and the Olive Tree”. He was specifically talking about the case of Usama bin Laden who has challenged the largest military force on the planet and done quite well. Eschewing many of the conventional tactics he has slipped into the very tiny set of counter examples and waged an effective worldwide insurgency at spectacular cost against the United States. An interesting debate would be 1) Is it true or false that Al Qaeda has eschewed the use of technology to decrease chance of detection; 2) Who is more effective at command and control? The guy waging a war from a cave in the middle of nowhere or a commander in chief who has all the tools available? 3) Can the insurgency model of the Al Qaeda be translated to the cyber space realm?

The questions  aren’t meant to challenge anybody’s assumptions but open a dialog into whether insurgency tactics could further enable the individual. If the tactics of a global insurgency can be translated from the real world the super empowered individual in cyber warfare takes on a new level of threat. If there are analogous improvised explosive devices in cyber space as an example how would they be contravened? Insurgencies sift through the population and insurgents often look just like any other civilian. There is a troubling issue though. In cyber space the idea of winning hearts and minds as a counter insurgency tactic assumes that a population is eager to change their ways. With the super empowered individual there is little to sway their already decided mine set. Standard counter insurgency tactics will not necessarily work as strategy. Similarly searching homes and businesses for weapons stockpiles will have little in the way of representation in cyber space. An assumption might be made that the individual gets all of the plusses and none of the negatives in waging cyber warfare against a nation state.

A case against the individual and their capability is based within the technology itself. Many of the types of attacks that are possible require extreme patience and are not point and click simplicity. Similarly as critics have noted in the past most military planners are not going to want to wage a war when a simple patch upgrade by an adversary might disrupt plans or capabilities. So, the individual who is always at risk of being detected could lose strategic advantage quickly through a series of counter technologies. The spectrum of conflict possible in cyber space elicits counter capabilities to losing some specific weapon. The issue being there are simply so many opportunities to attack that closing some will give you notice to attack others.

Another form of the individual though is the corporation. We have already seen examples of corporate espionage waged in a burgeoning field of corporate warfare. As the nation state erodes under the abrasion of globalization the corporate state as an adversary is rising to challenge and be challenged by the individual. That discussion is for another time though.

1 comment for “How to wage cyber warfare: The super empowered individual, Part 8

  1. Richard B
    June 30, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    A thought-provoking post. Thanks.

    In discussing force multipliers for SEIs, we might think of anonymity as a supplemental force multiplier. OBL and company have repeatedly added to their mayhem by carefully choosing when, and whether, to acknowledge their part in an attack. A better example might be the (1960?) Saigon bicycle bombings, intended as misdirection and more effective because no one claimed responsibility and therefore the insurgents couldn’t as effectively defend their innocence.

    What I find especially troubling about prospects for anonymous SEIs and similar small group attacks is the potential resulting harm to our civil liberties. Anonyimous attacks are very plausible in our 2009 but much more difficult in Orwell’s 1984. Given the aftermath of 911 we can only wonder how far a government might be allowed to go after an anonymous mega-death event. My (beginning) thoughts on this fear are posted at . All feedback is appreciated, especially opposing viewpoints.

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