Blown To Bits

Cyberwarfare, Military and Political

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The New York Times features “bits” stories today that are two sides of the same coin. On the front page, tech writer John Markoff reports that the shooting war between Russia and Georgia was preceded by a cyberwar — specifically, a “distributed denial of service” (DDOS) attack, aimed at critical computers in Georgia. A DDOS is simply a bombardment of Internet-connected computers with messages in such enormous quantities that even figuring out that the messages should be ignored overwhelms the computers’ network bandwidth and processing power. What makes it “distributed” is that the messages are coming not from a single source but from hundreds or thousands of machines, perhaps distributed around the world. And that’s what makes it hard to draw the natural conclusion, that the attack was coming from Russia, or even that Russian hands were on the trigger. Tracing the origins of an attack like this is very difficult, since the machines sending the messages may themselves have been taken over for this purpose by a remote attack, without the owner’s knowledge.

On the Opinion page, Garrett Graff — with whom I had friendly relations when he wrote for the Crimson — has an interesting analysis of the story behind Obama’s promise to text-message his VP choice. That database of contact info is hugely valuable in a political campaign, especially now that many young voters don’t have landlines. Badger them with text messages and they are more likely to vote. It’s how organizing now happens, and campaigns are about organization. McCain doesn’t seem to have figured that out yet. As far as I can see (the search window on his web site is broken), McCain sees information technology as mostly something to be feared. The only reference to the Internet is on the “Sanctity of Life” page. Reports keep coming (e.g. from Kevin Werbach here) that McCain’s technology policy will be announced any day now. But even when and if it comes, comparisons like the one Graff makes leave doubt that McCain really gets it in a way that will usefully guide government actions.

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