News reports this morning include a cyberattack on South Korean computer networks. It took down an Internet service provider affecting three big broadcasters and a couple of major banks. A group calling itself the “Whois Team,” previously unknown, appears to be (ir)responsible for the attack. Their name appeared on hacked webpages along with a skull and crossbones and a warning that this was just the start of “Our Movement.” Despite an official “no comment,” authorities suspect the real culprits are working for the North Korean government. If so, this is a dangerous situation, but there are precedents for analogous actions during the Cold War that provide some basis for calm.
First off, one must concede that other forces could be behind the attack. It isn’t all that hard to put together the equipment and computer talent needed to engage in this kind of pursuit. Just about everyone reading this article has the hardware necessary to do it. So, the question becomes one of motivation. Who would want to harm South Korean enterprises? The number of suspects drops precipitously when one poses that question. There could be a religious cult or a bizarre political splinter group out to get the Seoul government. However, the odds suggest a North Korean connection.
Since the latest Kim ascended the throne in the hermit kingdom, the Pyongyang government has been more than a bit spiky. It’s clear the young dictator is trying to prove he’s his father’s son. Missile launches, nuclear tests and threats of war come with some regularity. The worry is that someone on either side of the 38th parallel will miscalculate, and the war the halted in 1953 will reignite.
However, the latest attack, if it is North Korean in origin, is not without precedent. During the Cold War, the US and USSR regularly probed one another’s defenses. MiGs and F-15s would fly almost, but not quite, into the opposing side’s airspace just to see if the other guys were paying attention. Submarines engaged in similar tactics. Yet the number of times these probing exercises resulted in genuine difficulties are few; Gary Powers and his U2 getting shot down is the only example that springs readily to mind. This attack is not much different. Whoever engaged in the attack appears only to have probed the defenses, found them wanting, and moved on.
What is different, here, is not the battle space of the Internet but rather the publicity that goes with it. During the Cold War, only a handful were ever aware of a particular incident. When the cash machines and TV stations in one of the world’s most wired cities go down, millions and then billions know about it. One of these days, a probing attack could go too far and give a demagogue politician a tool to use in advancing his or her own career. Joe McCarthy made a name for himself with far less. Governments and corporations hush up cyberattacks all the time. In this instance, it just couldn’t be done.
“Keep Calm and Carry On” isn’t bad advice for the civilian population, but for the governments involved, putting a lid on this kind of thing is best for everyone. One may as well ask Santa for a pony as well because some insist on playing with fire.