Hacking the Bomb
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Hacking the Bomb

Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons

Andrew Futter

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  1. 212 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Hacking the Bomb

Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons

Andrew Futter

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About This Book

Are nuclear arsenals safe from cyber-attack? Could terrorists launch a nuclear weapon through hacking? Are we standing at the edge of a major technological challenge to global nuclear order? These are among the many pressing security questions addressed in Andrew Futter's ground-breaking study of the cyber threat to nuclear weapons.

Hacking the Bomb provides the first ever comprehensive assessment of this worrying and little-understood strategic development, and it explains how myriad new cyber challenges will impact the way that the world thinks about and manages the ultimate weapon. The book cuts through the hype surrounding the cyber phenomenon and provides a framework through which to understand and proactively address the implications of the emerging cyber-nuclear nexus. It does this by tracing the cyber challenge right across the nuclear weapons enterprise, explains the important differences between types of cyber threats, and unpacks how cyber capabilities will impact strategic thinking, nuclear balances, deterrence thinking, and crisis management. The book makes the case for restraint in the cyber realm when it comes to nuclear weapons given the considerable risks of commingling weapons of mass disruption with weapons of mass destruction, and argues against establishing a dangerous norm of "hacking the bomb."

This timely book provides a starting point for an essential discussion about the challenges associated with the cyber-nuclear nexus, and will be of great interest to scholars and students of security studies as well as defense practitioners and policy makers.

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The Nature

of the Challenge


What Exactly Do We Mean
by the Cyber Challenge?

“CYBER” IS A NEBULOUS and contested concept that means different things to different people. This is a central reason why the cyber debate lacks coherence, and why there is such disagreement about the nature and extent of the cyber challenge and cyber threat. Indeed, it has become commonplace to use the prefix or adjective “cyber” as a one-size-fits-all descriptor for the challenges posed by the numerous new tools and dynamics associated with computer systems, complex technologies, and the latest information revolution. As a result, it often is not clear what is and is not new, what is at risk, in what ways and to whom when we talk about cyber. At least part of this is because the cyber revolution is “still incipient,” and because we cannot yet be fully sure with any confidence what it means for theory and practice.1 But a failure to be clear what is meant by the term has often led to overhyping and a general misunderstanding of the cyber challenge, which in turn has made it far harder to devise and agree to a set of responses, frameworks, and protections. This has also left the concept dangerously devoid of strategic meaning, which has meant that “cyber” is too often used as a catchall that means whatever the user wants (consciously or not).
Despite a tendency for conflation in both the academic literature and policy debates, there are many different types of cyber challenges—some that are intrinsic and are the product of the emergent digital context, some that involve cyber operations, and some that might even include strategic attacks or cyber weapons. But perhaps the most important distinction when seeking to conceptualize “cyber” is between the challenges derived from the pervasively computerized global context in which we all live, where complex technology forms an ever-increasing part of everyday life, and those challenges emanating specifically from cyber operations and new methods of exploitation and attack. Cyber threats vary considerably across a cyber spectrum—which ranges from the use of capabilities for nuisance, crime, and hacktivism; through espionage; to denial-of-service attacks and the infiltration of systems; to activities that cause damage, involve weapons, or might even be considered warfare. Depending on the use of the term “cyberattack,” it could therefore be argued that nations and critical infrastructure are constantly under attack or that such attacks are a minor concern and are very unlikely to materialize. For example, when Adam Segal warned in 2012 that US nuclear weapons face “up to 10 million significant cyberattacks every day,” this did not necessarily mean defending against millions of versions of Stuxnet, cyber-terrorists trying to cause a nuclear explosion, or some other highly sophisticated piece of malware that could destroy these systems, but rather “automated bots, constantly scanning for vulnerabilities,” or even just curious, would-be hackers.2 The difference is distinct, and the lack of clarity often drives hyperbole, leads to confusion, and complicates issues of cyber security, cyber defense, and cyberdeterrence. Such semantics also often obfuscate what is new and what is not when we talk about the cyber challenge, and particularly how this emerging suite of new and inchoate dynamics interacts, builds on, or transforms the current nuclear threat landscape. As a result, there is a strong case for treating the cyber challenge as both context as well as a set of new tools, operations, and weapons, and therefore for viewing it as both a societal development and a technological transformation in military operations and international security.
Accordingly, this chapter proceeds in three sections. The first explains the complex and complicated cultural heritage and the etymological development of the “cyber” concept, and the problems of agreeing on a single definition that this has caused; the second introduces the notion of a cyber threat spectrum and outlines the very different and differentiated nature of the challenge; and the third section looks at the new range of tools, mechanisms, and dynamics that have emerged as part of the transition from an analogue to a digital nuclear world. The conclusion makes the case for treating the cyber challenge as both a context and a set of specific threats, operations, and tools when we assess the challenge posed to the nuclear weapons enterprise and the nuclear order more broadly.

A Complicated Heritage: Genesis and Definition

The complicated and diverse background of “cyber” is a fundamental reason why its nature and definition—and, therefore, its implications for security thinking and practice—remain such a contested subject. This is because cyber challenges are both new and novel—and, broadly viewed as a phenomenon that is synonymous with the digital computer, the internet, and the latest information revolution or age—and at the same time are the most recent iteration in how information is used, communicated, and stored that can be traced back through history.3 Consequently, it is often difficult to outline exactly what the cyber challenge includes and what is and is not new, issues made even more complicated by the relationship with the Revolution in Military Affairs, electronic warfare (EW), and the broader field of information warfare (IW) or information operations. Thus, there are three often-competing and co-constitutive aspects of how we understand the cyber challenge: (1) the evolution, use, and etymology of the term itself in popular culture; (2) its status as the latest iteration in the role of information in warfare; and (3) its relationship with the broader notions and established traditions of IW and EW. It is this mixed heritage between recognized military traditions, cultural movement, and new societal dynamics that have made “cyber” such a difficult concept to define, and why the debate on the nature and seriousness of the cyber threat is still opaque, diverse, and divided.
The word “cyber” began life with nothing to do with computers, hackers, or the internet—or, for that matter, anything to do with warfare. Its etymology can probably be traced back to Ancient Greece and the phrase kybernetes—which translates roughly as “helmsman” or “the art of steering.”4 But the word as we know it did not emerge until the 1940s and the publication of Cybernetics by Norbert Weiner; Cybernetics was the study of the importance of systems in both living beings and artificial machines.5 The term then became popularized in the 1980s as part of the “cyberpunk” movement (a subgenre of science fiction), and most notably with the novel Neuromancer by the science fiction writer William Gibson.6 Neither of these developments had much to do with security or politics. In fact, “cyber” did not really become part of the national security lexicon until the 1990s, with the development of SIMNET (the first virtual battlefield) by the US military,7 and the publication of the seminal article “Cyberwar Is Coming!” by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt in 1993.8
“Cyber” and particularly the notion of “cyberwar” did not start being used within US policymaking circles until about 1995, when an interagency task force investigating the weaknesses of the United States’ critical national infrastructure needed a phrase to capture the challenges posed by the new computer vulnerabilities within these systems. According to Fred Kaplan, “cyber” was the name advocated by Michael Vatis, a Justice Department lawyer in the task force who had just read Neuromancer.9 Since then, “cyber” has become one of the most utilized words in existence and has emerged as something of a catchall prefix or adjective referring to almost every aspect of modern life. Some estimates suggest that as many as 150 words now contain the prefix or adjective “cyber.”10 It is primarily due to this unusual evolution that the term “cyber” is often seen as referring to broader societal and even cultural development and the technological transformation of society, as well as a discrete set of new and novel capabilities, vulnerabilities, and threats.
At the same time, the cyber phenomenon is also the latest iteration in the centrality of information and the nature of the so-called infosphere (where information is created, stored, shared, and used) in warfare and strategy.11 The security, safe storage, secure communication, and reliability of information have been intrinsic to national security and warfare throughout history. Equally, stealing, altering, and destroying key information; attacking, sabotaging, and compromising the means of storing and sharing this information; and seeking to alter perceptions and policies through deception and psychological operations have also always been a central part of warfare too. But though the methods, skills, and technologies used to achieve this have undoubtedly changed over time—from messengers, semaphore, and telegraphs to wireless networks, satellite communications, and network-centric warfare—the central principles and importance of information to and within warfare and strategy have remained relatively constant. If anything, they have become more important. This is particularly the case in the last two hundred years, as states have come to rely more on electronics and telecommunications for military operations.12 Thus, many cyber challenges can actually be traced to “classical military and intelligence fields.”13
In this way, we can think of the cyber challenge as not fundamentally altering the nature or the importance of information but rather as creating new ways of managing and targeting this information and therefore new problems for defense, assurance, and security. Or, as David Lonsdale puts it: “The information age has raised our awareness of information.”14 Therefore, the cyber phenomenon, the proliferation of complex software and networked computers, ever-increasing real-time interconnectivity, and particularly the wholesale transition from an analo...

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