Are catastrophic cyber attacks on their way?
A new report compiled by the Pew Research Center and Elon University's "Imagining the Internet" Center invited 12,000 experts and civilians to weigh in on that very question, and the results aren't exactly comforting.
Pew's poll of Internet experts and power users garnered 1,642 responses on the question of future cyber warfare.
The majority of respondents—61 percent—predicted a major cyber attack causing widespread harm would occur by 2025, while 39 percent replied “no.”
But despite the poll's intent to narrowly define the question, the answers vary in what broadly constitutes a harmful cyber attack. And the sampling reflects an overwhelming North American bias; only 16 percent of poll respondents hail from outside the continent.
Still, the poll features input from many influential actors on the Internet, and raises five interesting points about the future of cyber attacks and our “mutually assured disruption.”
China will be involved somehow
The Cold War saw the Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire." In 2025, according to security experts canvassed for the study, that role will most likely be played by China.
That China will be a threat to cyber security in 2025 isn't particularly surprising given that they are already believed to be behind cyber attacks now. Just last week, the Chinese government was accused of sponsoring sophisticated attacks against Apple's iCloud services. China denied any involvement in the breach.
But what will Chinese cyberattacks look like in the future? They'll involve the South China Sea. One scenario, proposed by GigaOM Research lead researcher Stowe Boyd, envisions China subverting the military provisions of its neighbors, Japan and South Korea.
Boyd told Pew, "[Japan and South Korea would] need to reconfigure their electronics, at huge cost…imagine a world dependent on robotic farm vehicles, delivery drones, and AI-managed transport, and how one country might opt to disrupt the spring harvest as a means to damage a neighboring opponent."
China’s disproportionate influence over world trade could also bring it disproportionate blame in the event of a disaster. John E. Savage, professor of Computer Science and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) fellow, writes:
"[China has] claimed control over the entire South China Sea through which 25 percent of the world’s maritime shipping occurs and now are claiming sovereignty over a large portion of the East China Sea. If tensions rise over their assertions and an accident occurs at the same time that shuts off the electricity in a large portion of the United States and malware attributed to China is found within computers controlling the electric grid, escalation and further damage are likely. The undersea cable system carries more than 95% of the global Internet traffic. This includes at least $10 billion in financial transactions per day. Damage to a large portion of this system lasting days or weeks could easily reach the threshold cited in the question."
Smaller nations could target bigger ones…
In a dystopic near-future, smaller countries may no longer be bullied by their bigger and wealthier counterparts. The future, according to various experts, will make it easier for these proverbial Davids to hurl a cyber rock at the Goliaths.
"If the United States continues a foreign policy of domination and threats, some of which have been cyber attacks on other countries, what do small countries with little change to fight militarily do?" Leigh Estabrook, professor at the University of Illinois, asks rhetorically.
And “as the third and fourth worlds go digital, cyber wars will occur by or to first-world nations," warns Dennis McCann, a computer training director who has previously worked at IBM and Cisco.
..Or, there will no longer be traditional nation-states at all.
Perhaps countries won't really exist by 2025, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. The Internet has essentially created what intellectual Marshall McLuhan dubbed a "global village." Who's to say that this won't fracture into smaller tribes?
"How are you part of a 'nation' when you are connected globally" asks Karen Landis, lead of Belk.com's user-experience team. "If the currency system becomes global (e.g., Bitcoin), nations will not be as necessary."
The Norse DarkMatter™ platform tracks hundreds of terabytes of live threat intelligence from hundreds of locations in over 40 countries every day.
But if there are no countries in the traditional sense, what will they become?
"People will join 'nations of choice,' giving their allegiance to loose organizations that have principles they love, such as Burning Man, the Tea Party, Occupy, and others that will emerge in the next few years," predicts Relationship Economy eXpedition founder Jerry Michalski.
Wealth buys some safety from cyber attacks.
Regardless of whether traditional nation states still stand in the next 10+ years, one thing is for certain: the rich will have an easier time in Dystopia.
Writer Susan Caney-Peterson predicts the elite will use their wealth to bolster their personal security.
"Attacks on individual data will have become routine and only the wealthy will have precautions in place, thanks to the hiring of privacy experts, which become as necessary as tax accountants were in the past," she told Pew.
Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland, sees a grimmer future about what the affluent will do:
As the wealthy segregate themselves into enclaves or diversify their residences across continents, they (and the political class they heavily influence) will continue to disinvest in infrastructure."
Curiously, Pasquale's words appear to be somewhat prophetic. Earlier this month, actor Alec Baldwin said in Russell Brand's web show The Trews that his rich friends are already in the process of buying remote land in preparation for the upcoming apocalypse.
Elections will be rigged.
This one is easily the most believable conjectures, largely because there have already been multiple instances in which voting machines have proven to be susceptible to attacks. In 2012, hacker Roger Johnston gave a step-by-step explanation to Popular Science on how he broke into a machine using nothing more than $30 worth of equipment purchased at a local electronic store. [link:. That someone could manipulate a voting machine is so plausible, [SPOILER ALERT] the extremely popular ABC show Scandal used it as a major plot point.
Two experts who spoke to Pew don't see the vulnerabilities in our voting systems disappearing by 2025.
"We've already seen election department servers attacked," one unnamed behavioral researcher said. "There's no personal data there that isn't publicly available elsewhere, so that's not the driver. These attacks are practice sessions. They'll probably escalate and expand."
Barbara Simons, a former computer scientist with IBM and currently on the board of directors for the non-profit VerifiedVoting.org, does not disagree:
"Internet voting is vulnerable to attacks by anyone from anywhere, including insider attacks. And of course, it's impossible to conduct a recount to determine whether or not the declared results are correct."
The flip side: Humanity wins out in the end
For all the gloom and doom provided by the majority of the respondents, there is a glimmer of hope; one that is rooted in the Cold War. We are, of course, referring to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Just as the United States is capable of waging a major cyber attack on opposing nations, so is China (see above), Russia, and any other group or organization with the technical know-how to pull it off.
"The potential of threat is as real as the potential of nuclear annihilation," Justin Reich, fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, explained. "It hasn't happened because mutually-assured destruction works, at least it has for 70 years." As such, he argues, the worst that we can expect is a "relatively low-grade probing, piracy, and state-sponsored cyber-terrorism."
The self-reflexive impacts of nations implementing programs to anticipate cyber threats are already being realized. Clifford Lynch, executive director for the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and adjunct professor at the School of Information at UC-Berkeley relates the NSA as a prime example: "If to defend a nation's people includes defending the principles that define the nation and the individual rights and freedoms afforded to the people by those principles, then the NSA has mounted the most damaging cyber attack to date, with no apparent consequences.”
In short, will cyber attacks pose existential threats to entire nations by 2025? Maybe; but the ability to cause irreparable harm is mitigated by our desire of self-preservation.
Andy is a graphics editor and cartoonist at Fusion.
Fidel Martinez is an editor at Fusion.net. He's also a Texas native and a lifelong El Tri fan.