Is cyberwar the fastest way to improve cybersecurity?

It is still a struggle to get people and organizations to take cybersecurity seriously. A cyberspace-based conflict may be the most likely way for us to make progress.

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For all the benefits IT in general and the Internet specifically have given us, it has also introduced significant risks to our well-being and way of life. Yet cybersecurity is still not a priority for a majority of people and organizations. No amount of warnings about the risks associated with poor cybersecurity have helped drive significant change. Neither have real-world incidents that get worse and worse every year.

The lack of security in technology is largely a question of economics: people want functional things, not secure things, so that’s what manufacturers and coders produce. We express shock after weaknesses are exposed, and then forget what happened when the next shiny thing comes along. Security problems become particularly disconcerting when we start talking about the Internet of Things, which are not just for our convenience; they can be essential to one’s well-being.

To be clear: war is a terrible thing. But war is also the mother of considerable ad hoc innovation and inventions that have a wide impact long after the shooting stops. War forces us to make those hard decisions we kept putting off because we were so busy “crushing” and “disrupting” everything. It forces us to re-evaluate what we consider important, like a reliable AND secure grid, like a pacemaker that that works AND cannot be trivially hacked. Some of the positive things we might expect to get out of a cyberwar include:

A true understanding of how much we rely on IT in general and the Internet specifically

You don’t know what you’ve got till it's gone, so the song says, and that’s certainly true of IT. You know IT impacts a great deal of your life, but almost no one understands how far it all goes. The last 20 years has basically been us plugging computers into networks and crossing our fingers. Risk? We have no idea.

A meaningful appreciation for the importance of security

Today, insecurity is an inconvenience. It is not entirely victimless, but increasingly it does not automatically make one a victim. It is a fine, a temporary dip in share price. In war, insecurity means death.

The importance of resilience

We are making dumb things ‘smart’ at an unprecedented rate. Left in the dust is the knowledge required to operate sans high technology in the wake of an attack. If you’re pushing 50 or older, you remember how to operate without ATMs, GrubHub and GPS. Everyone else is literally going to be broke, hungry and lost in the woods.

The creation of practical, effective, scalable solutions

Need to arm a resistance force quickly and cheaply? No problem. Need enough troops to fight in two theaters at opposite ends of the globe? No problem. Need ships tomorrow to get those men and materiel to the fight? No problem. When it has to be done, you find a way.

The creation of new opportunities for growth

When you’re tending your victory garden after a 12 hour shift in the ammo plant, or picking up bricks from what used to be your home in Dresden, it's hard to imagine a world of prosperity. But after war comes a post-war boom. No one asked for the PC, cell phone, or iPod, yet all have impacted our lives and the economy in significant ways. There is no reason to think that the same thing won’t happen again, we just have a hard time conceiving it at this point in time.

In a cyberwar there will be casualties. Perhaps not directly, as you see in a bombing campaign, but the impacts associated with a technologically advanced nation suddenly thrown back into the industrial (or worse) age (think Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria). The pain will be felt most severely in the cohorts that pose the greatest risk to internal stability. If you’re used to standing in line for everything, the inability to use IT is not a big a deal. If you’re the nouveau riche of a kleptocracy – or a member of a massive new middle class – and suddenly you’re back with the proles, you’re not going to be happy, and you’re going to question the legitimacy of whomever purports to be in charge, yet can’t keep the lights on or supply potable water.

Change as driven by conflict is a provocative thought experiment, and certainly a worst-case scenario. The most likely situation is the status quo: breaches, fraud, denial and disruption. If we reassess our relationship with cybersecurity it will certainly be via tragedy, but not necessarily war. Given how we responded to security failings 16 years ago however, it is unclear if those changes will be effective, much less ideal.

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