The case for cyberwarfare

Senior officials such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warn that the “next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyber attack.” But what if cyberwarfare is not such a bad thing after all, though? What if it saves lives? The evidence so far actually suggests that cyberwarfare costs fewer lives compared with traditional types of warfare.

The prevailing view, however, holds that cyberwar is a terrifying prospect. The influential 2010 book Cyberwar, for instance — co-authored by Richard A. Clarke, who was responsible for cybersecurity at the White House until 2003 — paints a gloomy picture of potential future cyberattacks that could involve cutting millions of people off the electrical grid or, worse, as in the case of an attack on aviation control or a nuclear power plant, cost thousands of lives.

Yet the evidence of cyberwarfare, so far, reveals a very different picture. The cyberattack on Estonia in 2007 was the first to make major international headlines. But its damage was limited: The Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack overburdened servers in Estonia and brought down several websites. Something similar happened in Georgia during the war in 2008. Such attacks could theoretically cost lives if they shut down emergency hotlines, for example. But they’re not the sort of thing that should keep us up at night.