09:25
TEDxParis 2010

Guy-Philippe Goldstein: How cyberattacks threaten real-world peace

Filmed:

More and more, nations are waging attacks with cyber weapons -- silent strikes on another country's computer systems that leave behind no trace. (Think of the Stuxnet worm.) Guy-Philippe Goldstein shows how cyberattacks can leap between the digital and physical worlds to prompt armed conflict -- and how we might avert this global security hazard. (Filmed at TEDxParis.)

- Author
Guy-Philippe Goldstein is the author of Babel Minute Zero, a novel that examines the reality of cyberwar in our current geopolitical topography. Full bio

Good afternoon.
00:15
If you have followed
00:16
diplomatic news in the past weeks,
00:18
you may have heard of a kind of crisis
00:20
between China and the U.S.
00:22
regarding cyberattacks
00:24
against the American company Google.
00:26
Many things have been said about this.
00:28
Some people have called a cyberwar
00:30
what may actually be
00:32
just a spy operation --
00:34
and obviously, a quite mishandled one.
00:36
However, this episode reveals
00:38
the growing anxiety in the Western world
00:41
regarding these emerging cyber weapons.
00:43
It so happens that these weapons are dangerous.
00:46
They're of a new nature:
00:48
they could lead the world
00:50
into a digital conflict
00:52
that could turn into an armed struggle.
00:54
These virtual weapons can also destroy the physical world.
00:56
In 1982, in the middle of the Cold War
01:01
in Soviet Siberia,
01:04
a pipeline exploded with a burst of 3 kilotons,
01:06
the equivalent of a fourth of the Hiroshima bomb.
01:10
Now we know today -- this was revealed
01:12
by Thomas Reed,
01:14
Ronald Reagan's former U.S. Air Force Secretary --
01:16
this explosion was actually the result
01:18
of a CIA sabotage operation,
01:21
in which they had managed
01:23
to infiltrate the IT management systems
01:25
of that pipeline.
01:27
More recently, the U.S. government revealed
01:29
that in September 2008, more than 3 million people
01:32
in the state of Espirito Santo in Brazil
01:35
were plunged into darkness,
01:38
victims of a blackmail operation from cyber pirates.
01:40
Even more worrying for the Americans,
01:45
in December 2008 the holiest of holies,
01:47
the IT systems of CENTCOM,
01:50
the central command
01:52
managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
01:54
may have been infiltrated by hackers
01:57
who used these:
01:59
plain but infected USB keys.
02:02
And with these keys, they may have been able
02:04
to get inside CENTCOM's systems,
02:06
to see and hear everything,
02:08
and maybe even infect some of them.
02:10
As a result, the Americans take the threat very seriously.
02:12
I'll quote General James Cartwright,
02:14
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
02:16
who says in a report to Congress
02:18
that cyberattacks could be as powerful as
02:20
weapons of mass destruction.
02:23
Moreover, the Americans have decided
02:26
to spend over 30 billion dollars
02:28
in the next five years
02:30
to build up their cyberwar capabilities.
02:32
And across the world today, we see
02:34
a sort of cyber arms race,
02:36
with cyberwar units
02:39
built up by countries like North Korea
02:41
or even Iran.
02:43
Yet, what you'll never hear
02:44
from spokespeople
02:46
from the Pentagon or the French Department of Defence
02:48
is that the question isn't really
02:51
who's the enemy, but actually
02:53
the very nature of cyber weapons.
02:55
And to understand why, we must look at how,
02:58
through the ages, military technologies
03:00
have maintained or destroyed
03:03
world peace.
03:05
For example,
03:08
if we'd had TEDxParis
03:10
350 years ago,
03:11
we would have talked about the military innovation of the day --
03:13
the massive Vauban-style fortifications --
03:16
and we could have predicted
03:19
a period of stability in the world or in Europe.
03:21
which was indeed the case in Europe
03:24
between 1650 and 1750.
03:27
Similarly, if we'd had this talk
03:29
30 or 40 years ago, we would have seen
03:32
how the rise of nuclear weapons,
03:35
and the threat of mutually assured destruction they imply,
03:37
prevents a direct fight between the two superpowers.
03:41
However, if we'd had this talk 60 years ago,
03:45
we would have seen how the emergence
03:47
of new aircraft and tank technologies,
03:50
which give the advantage to the attacker,
03:53
make the Blitzkrieg doctrine very credible
03:56
and thus create the possibility of war in Europe.
03:59
So military technologies
04:02
can influence the course of the world,
04:04
can make or break world peace --
04:06
and there lies the issue with cyber weapons.
04:08
The first issue:
04:10
Imagine a potential enemy announcing
04:12
they're building a cyberwar unit,
04:15
but only for their country's defense.
04:17
Okay, but what distinguishes it
04:19
from an offensive unit?
04:22
It gets even more complicated
04:24
when the doctrines of use become ambiguous.
04:26
Just 3 years ago, both the U.S. and France
04:30
were saying they were investing militarily in cyberspace,
04:34
strictly to defend their IT systems.
04:38
But today both countries say
04:41
the best defense is to attack.
04:44
And so, they're joining China,
04:46
whose doctrine of use for 15 years has been
04:48
both defensive and offensive.
04:52
The second issue:
04:55
Your country could be under cyberattack
04:57
with entire regions plunged into total darkness,
05:01
and you may not even know
05:04
who's attacking you.
05:06
Cyber weapons have this peculiar feature:
05:08
they can be used
05:10
without leaving traces.
05:12
This gives a tremendous advantage to the attacker,
05:13
because the defender
05:15
doesn't know who to fight back against.
05:17
And if the defender retaliates against the wrong adversary,
05:19
they risk making one more enemy
05:21
and ending up diplomatically isolated.
05:24
This issue isn't just theoretical.
05:26
In May 2007, Estonia was the victim of cyberattacks,
05:28
that damaged its communication
05:30
and banking systems.
05:33
Estonia accused Russia.
05:35
But NATO, though it defends Estonia,
05:37
reacted very prudently. Why?
05:39
Because NATO couldn't be 100% sure
05:41
that the Kremlin was indeed behind these attacks.
05:43
So to sum up, on the one hand,
05:48
when a possible enemy announces
05:51
they're building a cyberwar unit,
05:53
you don't know whether it's for attack
05:55
or defense.
05:57
On the other hand,
05:58
we know that these weapons give an advantage to attacking.
05:59
In a major article published in 1978,
06:03
Professor Robert Jervis of Columbia University in New York
06:06
described a model to understand
06:08
how conflicts could arise.
06:10
In this context,
06:12
when you don't know if the potential enemy
06:15
is preparing for defense or attack,
06:17
and if the weapons give an advantage to attacking,
06:20
then this environment is
06:22
most likely to spark a conflict.
06:24
This is the environment that's being created
06:28
by cyber weapons today,
06:30
and historically it was the environment in Europe
06:32
at the onset of World War I.
06:35
So cyber weapons
06:39
are dangerous by nature,
06:41
but in addition, they're emerging
06:43
in a much more unstable environment.
06:46
If you remember the Cold War,
06:48
it was a very hard game,
06:50
but a stable one played only by two players,
06:52
which allowed for some coordination between the two superpowers.
06:54
Today we're moving to a multipolar world
06:57
in which coordination is much more complicated,
07:02
as we have seen at Copenhagen.
07:03
And this coordination may become even trickier
07:06
with the introduction of cyber weapons.
07:09
Why? Because no nation
07:12
knows for sure whether its neighbor
07:14
is about to attack.
07:17
So nations may live under the threat
07:19
of what Nobel Prize winner Thomas Schelling
07:21
called the "reciprocal fear of surprise attack,"
07:24
as I don't know if my neighbor
07:26
is about to attack me or not --
07:28
I may never know --
07:30
so I might take the upper hand
07:32
and attack first.
07:34
Just last week,
07:37
in a New York Times article dated January 26, 2010,
07:39
it was revealed for the first time that
07:43
officials at the National Security Agency
07:45
were considering the possibility of preemptive attacks
07:48
in cases where the U.S. was about
07:52
to be cyberattacked.
07:55
And these preemptive attacks
07:58
might not just remain
08:00
in cyberspace.
08:01
In May 2009, General Kevin Chilton,
08:05
commander of the U.S. nuclear forces,
08:10
stated that in the event of cyberattacks against the U.S.,
08:13
all options would be on the table.
08:18
Cyber weapons do not replace
08:21
conventional or nuclear weapons --
08:23
they just add a new layer to the existing system of terror.
08:25
But in doing so, they also add their own risk
08:30
of triggering a conflict --
08:33
as we've just seen, a very important risk --
08:35
and a risk we may have to confront
08:37
with a collective security solution
08:39
which includes all of us:
08:42
European allies, NATO members,
08:44
our American friends and allies,
08:46
our other Western allies,
08:48
and maybe, by forcing their hand a little,
08:50
our Russian and Chinese partners.
08:52
The information technologies
08:55
Joël de Rosnay was talking about,
08:57
which were historically born from military research,
08:59
are today on the verge of developing
09:01
an offensive capability of destruction,
09:03
which could tomorrow, if we're not careful,
09:06
completely destroy world peace.
09:10
Thank you.
09:13
(Applause)
09:15
Translated by Elisabeth Buffard
Reviewed by Veronica Martinez

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About the Speaker:

Guy-Philippe Goldstein - Author
Guy-Philippe Goldstein is the author of Babel Minute Zero, a novel that examines the reality of cyberwar in our current geopolitical topography.

Why you should listen

By day, Guy-Philippe Goldstein is a management consultant. At night, he writes gripping political thrillers treating of cyberwar. He's a graduate of France’s prestigious Hautes Études Commerciales, and has an MBA from Northwestern University. Babel Minute Zero is his first novel.

More profile about the speaker
Guy-Philippe Goldstein | Speaker | TED.com