Documenting the Coming Singularity

Monday, June 25, 2007

M.A.D. Becomes M.A.EM.D.

Everyone has heard of M.A.D., or Mutually Assured Destruction, which is the principle that has prevented a superpower nuclear holocaust to this point in human history. Simply stated, the nations with the capacity to launch massive nuclear attacks have been reticent about doing so because the result would be virtual annihilation for both attacked and attacker.

Now, another type of M.A.D. has appeared which I have termed M.A.EM.D. (pronounced maimed) for Mutually Assured Electromagnetic Destruction. Much of the world is now electromagnetically dependent. Anything with computer chips (and what doesn't have computer chips anymore?), especially anything that is connected to the Internet, is vulnerable to EM disruption. Everything from our banking system to our production lines to our public utilities is dependent on the Internet and thus vulnerable to disruption.

The world's major powers are therefore gearing up for all-out cyber war. According to a report in today's New York Times:
China, security experts believe, has long probed United States networks. According to a 2007 Defense Department annual report to Congress, China’s military has invested heavily in electronic countermeasures and defenses against attack, and concepts like “computer network attack, computer network defense and computer network exploitation.”

According to the report, the Chinese Army sees computer network operations “as critical to achieving ‘electromagnetic dominance’ ” — whatever that is — early in a conflict.

The United States is arming up, as well. Robert Elder, commander of the Air Force Cyberspace Command, told reporters in Washington at a recent breakfast that his newly formed command, which defends military data, communications and control networks, is learning how to disable an opponent’s computer networks and crash its databases.

“We want to go in and knock them out in the first round,” he said, as reported on

An all-out cyberconflict could “could have huge impacts,” said Danny McPherson, an expert with Arbor Networks. Hacking into industrial control systems, he said, could be “a very real threat.”

Attacks on the Internet itself, say, through what are known as root-name servers, which play a role in connecting Internet users with Web sites, could cause widespread problems, said Paul Kurtz, the chief operating officer of Safe Harbor, a security consultancy. And having so many nations with a finger on the digital button, of course, raises the prospect of a cyberconflict caused by a misidentified attacker or a simple glitch.

Still, instead of thinking in terms of the industry’s repeated warnings of a “digital Pearl Harbor,” Mr. McPherson said, “I think cyberwarfare will be far more subtle,” in that “certain parts of the system won’t work, or it will be that we can’t trust information we’re looking at.”
Of course this is frightening. But it seems to me that those who have the wherewithal to do major damage, essentially the world's major economies, understand that any attack against the interests of another major power would certainly result in a devastating counterattack. And a counterattack would not necessarily be confined to the EM domain. After all, any cyberattack of significant power would be an attack on the victim's entire viability as a sovereign nation; such is the importance of our computer networks.

True, smaller rogue nations and terrorist organizations will launch attacks, but these kinds of entities would be less likely to possess the means to destroy another nation's entire computer systems.

In addition to M.A.EM.D., we can rely for our EM safety upon the fact that the world's major powers' self-interest dictates cooperation and harmonious relations with each other.

Am I being overly optimistic? I hope not. Stay tuned.

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Spaceman Spiff said...

I think its agreed upon that as things progress it is easier and easier for smaller and smaller groups get hold of stuff like this. So while we're certain that nuclear weapons falling into the hands of small radical groups even individuals, it seems we still think its a good idea to develop new ways for civilization to be destroyed.

I suppose we can be confident that if we didn't do it, someone would and its probably better that we get if first...

But I for one remain convinced that this sort of continual arms race will eventually lead to more death and destruction than we can know. The wisdom of turning the other cheek becomes more and more evident to me.

I don't think we can avert it any other way than learning to lay our weapons down, in a courageous and defiant act of hope and trust. We need to recognize that even making certain things possible is an evil and foolish act that there is no justification for, and among them is the destruction of civilization as we know it.