Cyber-Warfare: Fighting and Winning

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In my last article, entitled: “Cyber-Terrorism vs. Cyber-Warfare: Defending The United Networks of America,” my goal was to set the stage for a way to think about America’s place in the Information Age. Will we be a super-power, Cold-warriors, a sovereign nation, a first-world or a third world entity in the 21st century?

Before we can get into the strategy and tactics of fighting and winning a cyber-war, it would be helpful to understand who we are and who we are fighting.

Are fans citizens? That may sound like a strange question. But in a connected world, fans self-select into communities of interest. When a community of interest forms around a pop-culture icon, a sports team or a movie, we call the members of the community, fans. When a community of interest forms around a political or religious worldview, what should we call them?

Obviously, the tyranny of geography does not apply to a connected world. Global communities of interest can form around any topic in a very short time frame. Look at any trending topic on Google or Twitter to get a better appreciation of the speed of information in the Information Age.

The colloquial association with terms such as “community of interest” or “fans” is that of a passionate, but casual affinity toward a particular subject. While this may be true in the traditional sense of the words, one disturbing trend has been the zealousness and vitriol of passionate, sometimes only partially informed advocates of particular worldviews, and their remarkable ability to voice their opinions as facts.

Internet purists will tell you that the system is self-correcting and that “facts” and “fact checking” are actually overly scrutinized in online settings. There is considerable evidence to the contrary. Just the other day, President Obama quoted the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who, when arguing with a colleague said, “… you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Real facts are hard to come by in the Information Age — there’s too much noise surrounding them.

One interesting consequence of the Information Age is the ability for people to cocoon themselves in the information they agree with and wrap themselves in the security of hearing only what they want to hear. This becomes more and more important as communities of interest metamorphose into social media trust circles. (A trust circle is simply a group of people whose opinions you trust above other sources.) In the Information Age, trust circles not only self-assemble, they are among the most powerful forces we face.

In the advertising and marketing business, we used to complain about the decentralization of mass media in the United States (truthfully, people are still complaining about it, but you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.) In the mid-20th century, there were three networks and you could inform, enlighten and entertain (or brainwash or propagandize) a remarkably large percentage of the population by disseminating information from only a few sources.

After the advent of the cable television industry and a new technology called the electronic remote control, the enemy was the fragmentation of the audience — you needed more tools to reach the same number of people in more places.

In the last 60 months, we’ve gone from a 500-channel universe to a multi-million-channel universe. Consumers (viewers) can no longer be described as fragmented; they are atomized. They have not gone away … they are simply self-assembled into millions of overlapping trust circles. This trend, of consumers taking control of their information consumption and distribution, will continue as long as the technology progresses. In other words, everything will continue to decentralize at an accelerated rate for the foreseeable future.

Who are we fighting? Is it a nation, or a self-assembled mist of atomized, like-minded individuals? Are there now, virtual nation-states?

If the very definition of government is an “empowered central command.” Certain questions are now unavoidable. For example, what popular currencies do governments use to govern?

  • Cash – our cash is backed by the full faith and credit of the United States of America.
  • Military Power – Why do people believe in our cash? Could it have something to do with the 10 Nimitz-class supercarriers on active duty around the world? It might. Gunboat diplomacy is well understood and understandable. Our conventional military power is so extraordinary; no thinking nation would attack us with conventional military force. Any version of traditional warfare would be met with such overwhelming force; I don’t have enough hyperbole to describe it.
  • Information – America is the world’s grandest experiment in freedom of expression. As we know, the control of information is directly translatable into cash or military power.

When I discussed these three currencies of government with a rather well known economist, I was told that Cash and Information are equivalent for this argument. Since our nation’s wealth is only supported by the belief in our posterity, information or propaganda (choose your own word to describe the Tao of the people) and the military are the two most powerful currencies in the Information Age. According to my friend, they are symbiotic. I’m not sure I agree, but I’m not an economist. Assuming that information and the military are two sides of the modern coin of the realm, in the Information Age, what constitutes weapons-grade information?

  • Top Secrets (Governmental, corporate, personal, etc.)
  • Data (all of our records: financial, medical, consumption, etc.)
  • Metadata (descriptions of data such as people’s identities, financial data, etc.)
  • Network Topology (our digital infrastructure)
  • Telecommunications Networks
  • Access to the power grid
  • Access to access points in the networks

I have had the remarkable pleasure of speaking with several high-ranking military officials in the last few weeks. The subject has been analog leaders and digital soldiers. I was told that practically every military leader (of sufficient rank) in the United States Armed Forces is an expert in the strategy and tactics of wars fought on battlefields. That is very comforting. But the most devastating wars we are likely to fight in this century will not be fought on battlefields. We are going to fight cyber-wars, several of them, and they are going to target our economic sovereignty in ways that conventional wars never have.

A few weeks ago, hackers targeted Google and a couple of dozen other tech companies. The attacks were specific, vicious and successful. The NSA, CIA, FBI, TSA, Homeland Security folks, Army, Secret Service … name your governmental agency or arm … had no idea. There were no air raid sirens, no red alert Klaxons, the nation did not know it was under attack. It was.

If you don’t know the history of Google, it is very well retold in Ken Auletta’s book, Googled: The End of the World As We Know It. In the book, you will find a description of what Google is. I’m sure you think of it as a search engine and, if you are more enlightened, you may know about its other products and ad-supported businesses. People search for information on Google over 100,000,000,000 times per month and Google has a copy of every search ever done (over its entire 12 year history). It learns from every search and it is optimized to deliver the best, most relevant advertising to you based upon that search. Don’t be fooled, by the business model, into thinking that an advertising company can’t possibly have national security value. Information is “the” currency of the Information Age and Google has a 100% monopoly. No other entity on Earth comes close.

After the attacks, there was much Sturm und Drang about who did what to whom. Was it an attack by the Chinese government or just a couple of unaffiliated hackers? If it was a nation attacking us, how would we know and how would we fight back?

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the top U.S. intelligence official warned that U.S. critical infrastructure is “severely threatened” and called the recent cyber attack on Google “a wake-up call to those who have not taken this problem seriously.”

“Sensitive information is stolen daily from both government and private sector networks, undermining confidence in our information systems, and in the very information these systems were intended to convey,” said Dennis C. Blair, Director of National Intelligence, in prepared remarks outlining the U.S. intelligence community’s annual assessment of threats.

After the attack, Secretary of State Clinton said, “A new information curtain is descending across much of the world,” as she called the growing Internet curbs the modern equivalent of the Berlin Wall. She went on to say, “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” as she cited China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt among countries that censored the Internet or harassed bloggers.

Sorry Mrs. Clinton, bureaucracy and diplomacy are not going to get this done. The United States Government is practically powerless in this arena. This was not a conventional attack. There were no enemy combatants, no bombers, no nuclear missiles … this was a cyber-attack with a specific target. Could there be a more asymmetrical warfare problem; a few unidentifiable, highly skilled, highly motivated individuals against the United States of America. Just how many Nimitz-class supercarriers would you like to send and, where might you send them.

Here’s an idea. Let’s nationalize Google. The only way to punish a nation-state in the Information Age is to cut off its access to information. A combination private and government crafted information isolation is the economic equivalent of destroying the Ancient Library of Alexandria for any specific country. If China wants to play an Information Age game of schoolyard name calling, let’s cut off its access to Information. It’s a level of economic sanction that we could not accomplish any other way.

Obviously, multi-national corporations will have a huge problem with this. So will everyone else. It’s a war, and when you are at war, people get hurt! That’s why you try to avoid them. But we can’t fool around with this. We have analog leaders who think in analog ways and they are being asked to deal with a remarkably complex set of digital infrastructure issues, that, honestly, only a very few people truly understand.

OK, maybe we can’t nationalize Google, but I’ve made my point. The only way to fight a cyber-war is with cyber-tools. We need a bunch of them, and we need them fast! To fight and win a war in the Information Age, we need to control the information. In many ways … Google already does.

About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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