CAMBRIDGE – Two years ago, a piece of faulty computer code infected Iran’s nuclear program and destroyed many of the centrifuges used to enrich uranium. Some observers declared this apparent sabotage to be the harbinger of a new form of warfare, and United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned Americans of the danger of a “cyber Pearl Harbor” attack on the US. But what do we really know about cyber conflict?
The cyber domain of computers and related electronic activities is a complex man-made environment, and human adversaries are purposeful and intelligent. Mountains and oceans are hard to move, but portions of cyberspace can be turned on and off by throwing a switch. It is far cheaper and quicker to move electrons across the globe than to move large ships long distances.
The costs of developing those vessels – multiple carrier task forces and submarine fleets – create enormous barriers to entry, enabling US naval dominance. But the barriers to entry in the cyber domain are so low that non-state actors and small states can play a significant role at low cost.
In my book The Future of Power, I argue that the diffusion of power away from governments is one of this century’s great political shifts. & Cyberspace is a perfect example. Large countries like the US, Russia, Britain, France, and China have greater capacity than other states and non-state actors to control the sea, air, or space, but it makes little sense to speak of dominance in cyberspace. If anything, dependence on complex cyber systems for support of military and economic activities creates new vulnerabilities in large states that can be exploited by non-state actors.