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Peter Singer: How a future World War III could be a cyberconflict

Peter Singer, strategist at New America think tank, is coauthor of forthcoming novel 'Ghost Fleet,' which explores what would happen if digital warfare erupts between nations. 

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    Peter Singer discusses his forthcoming book, Ghost Fleet, at the Naval War College.
    Courtesy of Peter Singer
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What could World War III look like? If the growing spate nation-state hacks is any indication, it'll be waged by computers and over networks. In his forthcoming technothriller "Ghost Fleet," Peter Singer explores how global conflicts might play out in the 2020s.

Mr. Singer, a strategist at the New America think tank in Washington, is also a consultant for the Pentagon and FBI, spoke with Passcode about his novel, due out later this month. He also cohosts "The Cybersecurity Podcast" with Passcode. Listen below to hear the latest episode featuring science fiction author and Boing Boing coeditor Cory Doctorow about how science fiction can help predict the future. 

Passcode: Your new novel, "Ghost Fleet," looks at what a global war in the 2020s might look like. How do digital attacks, and defenses, fit into this? 

Singer:  Wars reflect the worlds and technology around them, so a war in the 2020s – heck, a war today – would see the digital side of conflict.

There might be changed coverage of it, whereby a witness with a smartphone might post online news of an attack before the president even knows the nation is at war. We may see true cyberweapons such as Stuxnet used in a battle scenario, not just espionage. And there may be hardware hacks, where the attack is on the very microchips that power our weapons and takes place months before its effect is ever felt.

The irony, though, is that all the digital warfare may have the end result of taking parts of the fight back to a pre-digital age. You may have cyberstrikes and drones, but because of the two sides also going after things like communications and GPS, you may also see their fleets fighting like its 1944 again, struggling first to even find each other. It's noteworthy that this year the Naval Academy launched both a cybersecurity major – but also is having all the midshipmen learn celestial navigation. We’ve spent the last decade of war wrestling with a flood of data, and the problem could be the opposite: What to do when the spigot gets cut off.

Passcode: In your assessment, who are the main countries and/or players in a future global conflict – and what do their digital capabilities have to do with their chances at "winning" such a war? Are these countries you mention on track to achieving these kinds of capabilities? 

Singer: There are over 100 nations that have created some kind of military unit to fight conflicts in cyberspace, a la the United States' Cyber Command. But just as there are over 100 Air Forces – and only few able to carry out an air war – the number of countries able to fight a sustained cyber war is much more limited. You’re talking less than 10, with the focus of the book being on the two big powers that have lined up against each other and are engaged in an arms race right now in both physical weapons like warships and now cybercapabilities: The US and China.

But it is not just the official states that matter. It could be China’s massive cyber militia tied into its universities. Or private companies that can play an active role in 21st century conflicts, including in cyberspace, which means you might see new versions of “Cyber Blackwaters." Or hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous. In any case, they represent a very different kind of power than we saw the last time the great powers went to war, and one that could be the key to winning or losing.

Passcode: What does winning – or losing, for that matter – look like in a future cyberconflict? 

Singer: It’s a lot like any other conflict, using the tool to achieve your aims and preventing your foe from reaching their goals. What is interesting, and scary, about cyberconflict is how it allows certain trusted strengths to be turned into weaknesses, and how success or failure in this realm can decide winning or losing in other realms.

Passcode: People warn all the time about the potential of a "Cyber Pearl Harbor." But countries have so far showed real restraint in the use of destructive – or potentially fatal – cyberoperations. Science fiction aside, what do you think are the realistic chances we'll see a cyberattack of this scale in the future? What kind of scenarios would you predict have to happen for the cyberespionage and hacks we're seeing today to escalate to that level?  

Singer: Cows killed more Americans last year than ISIS. And the hackers linked to the OPM breach only stole digital information rather than caused physical damage. But that doesn’t, however, mean that ISIS is not a real security risk in way that cows are not – nor that there will never be damaging cyberattacks. It's simple: The reason there is no cyber war right is that there is no actual wars right now between states with cybercapacities.

The reason we have seen this restraint in cyber operations between say the US and China, or the US and Iran, is the very same reason they aren’t dropping actual bombs on each other: Because the two sides are not at war.

But if they did go to war, which could happen for any number of reasons, accidental or by choice, of course you would see cyberoperations against each other that would be of a different kind of scale and impact than we’ve seen so far. The first Cyber Pearl Harbor might happen from a decision to reorder the global politics in the 2020s, or it could happen just because two warships accidentally scrape paint over some reef in the South China Sea no one can find on a map. 

Passcode: Why fiction? Why the shift from nonfiction writing on cybersecurity into this realm?

Singer:  Fiction allows you to dial the timeline forward, to explore the “what ifs.”

So, to take the above, what if there was an actual war between the US and China? What would the cyber side of the conflict look like? Or, to use another example, as a journalist, my coauthor August Cole helped break the story of the F-35 fighter jet program being hacked. What is the impact of that? Or, Passcode has explored in detail the surveillance debate. What is the nature not just of our attack capabilities, but also our vulnerabilities? For example, one of the early scenes in the book looks at just that risk, how certain hacks from the Edward Snowden files that we've deployed against others could be used back against us – including even our own intelligence agencies. 

Fiction is also fun. We had a great time building the cast of characters and the plots. One that was both informative and fun was to use the book to tell the story of the real history of Silicon Valley that most people don't know – it started as a Navy blimp base! – and then play with the possible role Silicon Valley might play in a future war. This fun and informative mix, in turn, might make the real world lessons from the book more likely to be read by a wider audience. We hope.

Passcode: Your book is fiction but it also has hundreds of footnotes based on true events and technologies. What can analysts – and interested people – project from science fiction about real-life future conflicts in cyberspace?

Singer: We used the references to situation the fiction in the real world. Every single technology and trend in the book, no matter how science fiction sounding, is drawn from reality. This means everything from stealth warships to autonomous robotics to smart rings to brain machine interfaces. We’ll see these all in the real world and our conflicts.

But, for me, the best stories are the ones that explore broader human lessons and dilemmas, whether it’s the way that advanced technology brings new capabilities but also new questions to the issues of what is and is moral in war. I remember one time talking to a NASA scientist who said the best science fiction didn’t tell you how to build the bomb – it told you that if you build the bomb, you also risk getting "Dr. Strangelove."

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