Information peacekeepers: The military challenge to cyber terrorism

Western societies dominate the world economically and militarily primarily because of technology. Their common thread is their cyber base.

Whether it is picking up spare cash at an automated banking machine or piloting an aircraft to a safe landing in fog, we rely heavily on cyber systems. Computer systems, however, are vulnerable – and that makes them fair game for the hunters. Criminals, including those who claim a political motivation, prey on vulnerabilities.

Already one generation of criminals has grown up in a digital world and the next, including terrorists, are learning to manipulate the ever more powerful and easy-to-use electronic tools at their disposal.

Take just one aspect of the cyber world, financial transactions. Over recent decades consumer banking has blossomed from the relatively simple automated banking machine to a raft of functions available online.

It is hardly surprising, then, that criminal enterprise followed the money. We have reached a point where experts believe cyber crime has surpassed physical crime. Some estimates put the take as high as $400 billion dollars per year, more than the value of the global drug trade.

Terrorists – criminals motivated by a cause rather than money – are following their money-motivated counterparts into the cyber world as well.

Politically motivated terrorism is often about information, be it publicizing a cause or using it to further future goals.

Information also drives advanced militaries. Command and control systems thrive on information that can provide incredible advantages on the battlefield. Laser guided missiles utilizing global positioning systems can attack an enemy’s critical infrastructure. Now that same infrastructure can be attacked through information systems.

The Canadian military has an opportunity to define itself for the foreseeable future by becoming a world leader in cyber warfare. By assembling that expertise and capability, Canada could truly become the best at one particular style of operation.

During World War II, British bomber crews of the famous Dam Busters gave their lives to attack dams in the industrialised Ruhr Valley to cut off power supplies to vital war industries. They knocked out the dams but failed to disrupt the factories.

Today an enemy force can launch a similar attack, at the risk of only a broken fingernail, yet with certainty of devastating their targets as well as directly assaulting up and downstream objectives.

As late as the Vietnam War, commanders could determine the strength of their opposition through good intelligence – numbers of ships, aircraft, tanks, troops. Effective commanders in cyber warfare world can hide weapons, keeping their enemy in the dark until the instant weapons are unleashed.

The US military is convinced that “operations within the information domain will become as important as those conducted in the domains of sea, land, air, and space.”

As internet high-speed connectivity reaches around the globe, almost all countries will be capable of cyber warfare. That presents a considerable challenge.

How will we be able to distinguish between an attack on our military control or our financial systems by a disgruntled individual and a coordinated attack by a terrorist organization, or cyber warfare by a nation state?

The Canadian Forces has changed dramatically from its naissance as a force designed to defeat armies on a battlefield and navies on the seas. Its current mandate is to keep the peace, in a climate in which political solutions can be used to resolve disputes.

Our claim as global peacekeepers is more perception than reality. Canada’s contribution to UN missions is now rather small. Of 92 countries furnishing forces, Canada ranks in the mid 30s. Even within the Americas, Canada is behind Uruguay, Argentina and others in the contribution of peacekeeping personnel.

However, as we search to enhance our defence capabilities, cyber warfare represents a field that would suit the strategic requirements of the Canadian military. It is a low cost alternative to rebuilding our military through expensive investments in hardware, and is a unique opportunity to become the peacekeepers of the information domain. It would nicely compliment a niche we have so proudly staked out on the ground.

Properly protecting ourselves from future enemies lurking in cyber space will require an unprecedented level of cooperation among our technology experts in the military, law enforcement, academia, private sector, and the legal profession. We need a proactive strategy now to combat this new threat in cyber space – the future battlefield of crime, warfare, and terrorism.

Ian Wilms is a member of the Calgary Police Commission and vice president of the Canadian Association of Police Boards, as well as partner manager with IBM (

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