Threats Posed to Modern Industrialised States by Electronic Attacks

Essay 2002 15 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Peace and Conflict Studies, Security


A Critical Assessment of the Threat Posed to Modern Industrialised States by Electronic Attacks

One feature of the nation-state is that it has the right to declare war to another nation-state (Hughes 1998). Terrorist attacks like that of 11 September 2001 on the World Trade Center (WTC) and the reaction of the USA namely to declare war to the Al Qaeda respectively terrorism, blurs this right, because the terrorists are not a nation-state that can be war declared on. The attacks of the terrorists against Western capitalism can also be regarded as a kind of war. Here the war is not declared by a nation-state but by a terrorist group. For the reason that International Relations is, among other areas, interested in the processes that concern nation-states, the issue of electronic attacks posed to nation-states is important to be examined.

The main purpose of this essay will be to show that modern states can be threatened by electronic attacks. To get into the topic the history of the Internet will be roughly outlined. Then the threats, which can be imposed through this medium, will be basically dealt with as well as the question who launches electronic attacks where, when and why. This essay will also limit its focus concerning the ways in which an electronic attack can be done. Attacks through an electronic network, namely the Internet will be the main focus here. Other devices apart from electronic jamming[1], HERF Guns[2], EMP Bombs[3] will only briefly be mentioned.

To be not beyond the scope of this essay the USA will be special attention given to as a deputy for a modern industrial state, because no other country is yet as dependent on electronic technology as the USA and therefore vulnerable to electronic attacks. But Japan or Europe might be in the future in a similar situation as the USA is today. This paper might therefore be perceived as an early warning, as a mirror or a crystal ball that shows a possible vision of a future scenario of the modern industrialised states.

Finally concepts of measures against electronic attacks and a future outlook will round off this text.

The front-page headline of the Sunday Times from London reads on 2 June 1996: “City Surrenders £400 million to Gangs”. The gangs scared the British and American financial centres so that they would pay a ransom. Otherwise they would have destroyed important computer software through network attacks and other electronic devices. Some banks secretly transferred the claimed sums to the gangs instead of telling the police about the extortion. This reaction of the banks was made for not losing the confidence of their customers and to keep up their reputation (Schwartau 1996).

This example should illustrate what electronic attacks can do today, but to understand this issue and how, when and why it came into appearance requires a rough summary of the history of electronic networks.

When in the 1950s the Cold War started the US Defence Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) began to develop a communication system between military bases and cities, which could survive a nuclear attack. The problem with a conventional communication network was that it consisted of a central authority. If this authority would be destroyed during an attack the whole communication network would collapse. Hence ARPA solved the problem through designing a decentralised network. This network consisted of computers, which formed the knots of the network. At the same time, the computers served as sender and receiver of information. If the network would be attacked and some computers would be destroyed, the information transmitted from one knot to another would find its own route through the network to the point of destination. In 1964 the ARPANET was created which was the predecessor of what is known today as the Internet (Castells 2000: 45).

The Internet in its present appearance emerged in October 1994 when the Netscape Navigator was released (Castells 2000: 51). Until then the Internet consisted mainly of texts at the screen, there were no pictures, animations or sounds. This Internet browser however was, and still is, based on a graphical surface, which makes the handling of the Internet very convenient. The Netscape Navigator made it possible to place icons, animations and colourful backgrounds at websites. The further progress of the story is well known; the Internet became very attractive to a huge audience and today some 544 million people are online (NUA 2001).

The Internet can be used for a vast variety of things, as a communication medium through e-mails and websites, as a library to get information, for shopping and many other things. It also helps to spread the democratic idea so that it might give authoritarian states a hard time. It has apart from that contributed to turn the world into a global village. (Nye 1999: 12f). But its benefits are overshadowed by the possibility to commit crime by it. Richard E. Overill (1998) distinguishes two forms of computer crime. One form is computer related crime (CRC) in which the computer is the subject of the criminal act and the other computer assisted crime (CAC) in which the computer is an accessory to commit a crime. The beginning of CRC can be dated back to November 1983, when Fred Cohen wrote the first computer virus[4]. This virus was an experiment and therefore not spread. Three years later the fist computer virus infection through the Internet was recorded. This virus was called the BRAIN virus and came from Pakistan programmers. Low-tech states were now able to bother the rest of the world through the network or through data processing media like infected floppies or CD-ROMs. These states were now able to uses the information media as a weapon of warfare.

Dr. Ivan Goldberg, the Director of the Institute for the Advanced Study of Information Warfare (IASIW), defines information warfare (IW) as “the offensive and defensive use of information and information systems to deny, exploit, corrupt, or destroy, an adversary’s information, information-based processes, information systems, and computer-based networks while protecting one’s own. Such actions are designed to achieve advantages over military or business adversaries.” (IASIW 2002).


[1] “In the old days (and even today) electronic jamming was used to block communications channels at the enemy’s equipment so that they can’t receive any information.” (Russel & Gangemi 1994)

[2] “HERF stands for High Energy Radio Frequency. HERF guns are able to shoot a high power radio signal at an electronic target and put it out of function.” (Russel & Gangemi 1994)

[3] “EMP stands for electromagnetic pulse. The source can be a nuclear or a non-nuclear detonation. […] It destroys the electronics of all computer and communication systems in a quite large area. The EMP bomb can be smaller than a HERF gun to cause a similar amount of damage and is typically used to damage not a single target (not aiming in one direction) but to damage all equipment near the bomb.” (Russel & Gangemi 1994)

[4] “A virus is a code fragment that copies itself into a larger program, modifying that program. A virus executes only when its host program begins to run. The virus then replicates itself, infecting other programs as it reproduces.” (Russel & Gangemi 1994).


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University of Aberdeen – Department of International Relations
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threats electronic attack modern states




Title: Threats Posed to Modern Industrialised States by Electronic Attacks