The World

Cyberwar Is Here, and So Far It’s Mainly Just Annoying

HAMBURG, GERMANY - DECEMBER 28: A participant works on his laptop in a foam pit at the annual Chaos Computer Club (CCC) computer hackers’ congress, called 29C3, on December 28, 2012 in Hamburg, Germany.

Photo by Patrick Lux/Getty Images

The New York Times’ main site was taken down for much of yesterday and today after an apparent attack by the pro- Assad group known as the Syrian Electronic Army. Some of the back-end systems of Twitter appear to have been partially compromised by the group as well. As Slate’s Will Oremus notes, these attacks would seem to indicate a new level of skill for the group, which has in the past targeted media outlets including Al Jazeera, Reuters, the AP, and the Onion, generally by hijacking their Twitter accounts.

This comes just a few days after what Chinese authorities are calling the country’s “biggest ever” cyber-attack, a massive denial-of-service operation against the servers responsible for the .cn domain name. One Internet services company reported a 32 percent drop in Web traffic for .cn sites. The perpetrator and motives behind the attack are unclear—and the Chinese government hasn’t exactly been forthcoming—though the Wall Street Journal notes that the attack coincides with the controversial trial of former Gov. Bo Xilai and shortly after the arrest of a prominent online commentator.

Most of the attention devoted to cyberwar has focused on threats like those outlined by outgoing Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in her farewell address this week, a “major cyber-attack that could not just harm the economy, but also disrupt everyday life in America.” This could be something along the lines of the massive Web disruptions Estonia experienced at the hands of Russian hackers in 2007, or—worse—some sort of attack on critical systems like the U.S. power grid.

Serious cyberweapons do exist—see Stuxnet or Titan Rain—but the majority of politically motivated cyber-attacks are likely to feel more like this week’s events or Anonymous’ activities on behalf of WikiLeaks—mildly disruptive attacks against targets of opportunity. This isn’t to say something more catastrophic isn’t possible, but we should also be prepared for the fact that major international political controversies in the future will frequently be accompanied by disruptions to your favorite Internet services. The cyberwars of the future could take us to some very dark places, but on a day-to-day basis they’ll mainly just be irritating.