May 4, 2005. It's shortly after one o'clock on Friday afternoon, and across America people are preparing for the weekend. Everything seems normal on this mild spring day ... then suddenly the telephone system for Northern California and Oregon fails. The entire region shuts down.
In the nation's capital, the White House reports that thousands of incoming phone calls from computers have paralyzed its switchboards. At the air control tower for Chicago's O'Hare airport, air traffic controllers watch in horror as the radar screens go blank. Two jumbo jets collide, killing hundreds. In New York, the chairman of the United States Federal Reserve Bank falls into a panic when word reaches him that dozens of major banks cannot accurately account for their funds as computer viruses move through their data bases. Suddenly no one knows who has how much money ...
When most Americans think of war, their minds are seared with images of destroyed buildings and dead soldiers strewn on the battlefield.
But the largest threat to our way of life may come not in what enemies can do to us physically, but rather what they can do to our computers in the realm of cyberspace. Computer hackers and cyberwarriors, unseen and nearly impossible to locate, could wage a brutal campaign against us. And at present there is little we can do to stop it.
The Pentagon's Defense Science Board recently warned of a possible "electronic Pearl Harbor," in which America is paralyzed by a cyberwar. The report predicts that by the year 2005, the capability for attacks on United States information systems by terrorists, organized criminals, and foreign spy agencies will be "widespread."
A few computer hackers with basic knowledge can potentially do enormous damage. Only a few years ago, a group of young hackers who dubbed themselves the "Legion of Doom" actually gained control over Bell South's computers, giving them the ability to shut down phone systems throughout the entire southeastern United States if they had wanted.
The level of computer hacking activity is growing. Last year alone, an estimated 250,000 computer hacker attacks on United States Department of Defense computers took place. These attacks were difficult to detect, and they were launched from around the world. Hackers can loop and weave from system to system, often crisscrossing national borders. It is often difficult to tell if an attack is coming from inside or outside the United States.
The arsenal of weapons can include logic bombs and computer viruses which travel at the speed of light. In a very real sense, the electron has become the ultimate precision-guided weapon.
The problem is likely to get worse in the years ahead since computer hacking has become surprisingly easy, aided by the widespread availability of hacking software. The rise in the number of computer systems linked to the Internet means avenues of attack will increase as well.
Cyberwar reflects changes in our society and economy. During the agricultural era, armies sought to gain control of land to feed armies. In the industrial age, armies sought to destroy or control the means of production - resources, factories, and cities. In today's information age, however, controlling or destroying information becomes key. As the Defense Science Board notes, "military campaigns will be organized to cripple the capacity of an information-based society to carry out its information-dependent enterprises."
It also warns that current policies "are ingredients in a recipe for a national security disaster." In an era of declining military budgets, we need to commit resources to this potential problem.
The Pentagon wants to fight back, and we need to make sure their efforts become a national priority. Already there are plans on the shelf that will allow the United States - once the cyberenemy has been identified - to respond by injecting the attackers' computers with a polymorphic virus that will wipe out their system. The Pentagon is also working on developing some defenses, including an electronic immune system, to detect invaders and mobilize against them.
But we need to train computer system managers in industry and government about the perils of cyberwar. Otherwise a handful of skilled individuals could succeed in doing greater damage to America than any external enemy has in our history.
* Peter Schweizer is a visiting scholar at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and co-author with Caspar Weinberger of "The Next War" (Regnery).