Cyberwar Ain’t What It Used to Be

by Joey deVilla on May 29, 2007

Cover of the 1984 paperback edition of “Neuromancer” by William Gibson.

In his “Sprawl” series of short stories and novels, William Gibson made many references to World War III’s “cyberwar” component, especially in the novel Neuromancer. Willis Corto, an important character in that novel, is the sole survivor of a particularly important but forgotten operation in WWIII called Screaming Fist, which I’ll let Wikipedia summarize:

Operation Screaming Fist was an American military operation aimed at introducing a major virus into a Russian military computer. One of the main characters of the book, Corto, took part in the operation as a colonel. The operation was significant in that it involved dropping the team assembled for it by flying them across enemy lines on light gliders, with each member plugged into the first prototype cyberdecks. Unfortunately, the operation had been grossly mismanaged and had not taken into account certain aerial defenses. As a result, Russian EMP weapons were used against the gliders shortly after they entered Russian airspace. In the ensuing chaos, Colonel Corto escaped in a Soviet helicopter gunship and was the only survivor.

While it wasn’t as visually dramatic as soldiers and hackers on ultralights descending on a Russian military computer installation in a daring night raid, the denial-of-service attack on Estonia is just as Gibsonian, judging by the way the news outlets have been tossing about terms like “cyberattack”, “first war in cyberspace”, “cyberattack” and “digital Maginot Line.

What I find really interesting is that the only futuristic thing about the whole affair are the “cyber-” terms used to describe it. The actual attack itself isn’t anywhere as exotic or future-tech-y as Neuromancer and all those other cyberpunk novels of the ’80s and ’90s made such things out to be. In fact, a lot of it seems so damned ordinary:

Cyberpunk stories Real world
Cyber-attacks often required physical infiltration of a heavily-guarded site by a team comprising crack paramilitary troops and “console cowboys”. The cyber-attack didn’t require anyone to physically go anywhere; it was all done online.
Cyber-attacks often required specialized viral software (“icebreakers” in Gibson’s novels, where “ICE” stood for “Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics”) that had to be written by AIs and were available only to the military or from specialized black market dealers like The Finn. Cyber-attacks do make use of specialized viral software, but they’re written by humans — often teenagers with plenty of spare time — and are relatively easy to obtain if you hang around the right online circles (or wrong ones, depending on your point of view).
Cyber-attacks were typically pulled off using very specialized hardware built by hardware gurus. Here’s a line from hardware specialist Automatic Jack from the short story Burning Chrome:

I knew every chip in Bobby’s simulator by heart; it looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the `Cyberspace Seven’, but I’d rebuilt it so many times that you’d have had a hard time finding a square millimetre of factory circuitry in all that silicon.

This cyber-attack was carried out by a botnet, which is essentially a lot of ordinary home computers — stock machines and “commodity hardware” — whose spare cycles are being harnessed by a virus that probably found its way in there via spam, malware site or some other rather ordinary vector.
Cyber-attackers interfaced with their machines by “jacking in”; that is, linking themselves to their machines through electrodes, through which they’d operate in a virtual reality-like environment.

If they ran into “Black Ice”, a deadly form of anti-malware countermeasures, their nervous systems would get fried.

Cyber-attackers interfaced with their machines by “logging in”; that is, linking themselves to their machines through a keyboard, mouse and monitor, through which they’d operate in a command-line environment.

If they typed too long without a break, they’d get carpal tunnel syndrome and their wrists would get fried.

Cyber-attack targets were fancy-pants specialized computer installations accessible to few, such as military supercompters in Neuromancer’s backstory or the AI complex in its climax. The cyber-attack target was the Estonian internet, which people used for everyday activities, from banking to email to looking at pictures of other people’s cats with funny captions.
Fashion: Many hackers wore leather, black jeans and mirrored shades. Hey, this is also true in real life! Score one for Gibson!

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