Worrying About Cyber Warfare on Cyber Monday

12/01/2014 02:39 pm ET Updated Jan 31, 2015

As most Americans log on after a long holiday weekend from work, they are eager for all kinds of sales and savings. They probably aren't thinking about cyberterrorists, rogue states, and great powers eager to take the U.S.A. down a peg or two. But maybe they should.

In a recent conference presentation in Savannah, Georgia, University of North Georgia Professor Craig Greathouse explained how the new world of cyberwarfare isn't some futuristic idea, but is something already here.

New forms of conflict have emerged since the end of the Cold War in 1991, but while most of these have historical foundations there is one form of conflict which is new and unique: cyberwar. With the development of information-based societies who are reliant on connectivity, the potential for conflict within the cyber realm has emerged... From phishing and fraudulent emails designed to part those who are not careful from their money, to targeted attacks against corporations to gain access to client information, the "threat" from cyber activities has grown.

Greathouse documents the numerous cases of cyberwarfare, from attacks launched by Chinese cyberhackers to Russian targeting of Estonia and Georgia, the latter preceding a shooting war between the two countries. He documents all kinds of activities, ranging from cybervandalism, cyberespionage, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare, with such attacks occurring on huge level. Thankfully, according to Greathouse, Americans have not ignoring the problem.

While all of these events have been occurring the United States has not been idle in addressing this future battle space. Under President Obama significant resources have been poured into American cyber capabilities. For fiscal year 2015, the DoD budget request was for 5.1 billion dollars. While most of these capabilities have not yet been released to the public, speculation is rife about the capability of the U.S. military to engage in cyberwar both to defend the U.S. but also in an offensive capacity.

In fact, Americans may be hard-wired for an offense-minded cyberwarfare. Using Jack Snyder's research on the use of force and cultural norms, Greathouse finds that U.S. strategic culture of few casualties abroad, few American troop deaths, mission creep potential and a desire to protect the homeland all make America more likely to be a player in cyberwarfare. The devastating Stuxnet virus that crippled Iran's nuclear centrifuges was an effective early shot that shows Westerners can degrade its enemies' power.

But there's one problem with America's new cyberwarfare prowess. The country is incredibly vulnerable to online attacks. And it's not just hacker hits on Amazon, Target and Home Depot. It's more than just Anonymous taking down MasterCard and Visa over Wikileaks payments.

But, the United States finds itself very vulnerable to cyber attacks. One of the unique elements about cyber weapons is that at the present time the offensive capacity exceeds the defensive capacity. In looking at the U.S. currently it is transitioning towards becoming an information-based society. While that provides it with significant capacity it also creates significant vulnerability. With offensive cyber capabilities outstripping defensive capacity, the more a society relies on information and connectivity the more vulnerable it will be to targeted attacks. One vulnerability which has been pointed out often is the U.S. electrical grid. Many have argued that the control systems for the electrical grid have not been sufficiently protected from external threats... Vulnerabilities also exist within water systems, traffic control, banking, financial and health records, just to name a few.

If this has you concerned, you can buy a copy of Richard A. Clarke and Robert Knake's book CyberWarfare: The Next Threat to National Security and What To do About It on Amazon and find out more about the subject... if you're willing to risk ordering it with your credit card or Paypal account.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.