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National Defense > Blog > Posts > U.S. Engaged in ‘Cyber Cold War’ with China, Iran
U.S. Engaged in ‘Cyber Cold War’ with China, Iran
By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The United States is fighting a secretive “cyber cold war” with Iran and China, a former Department of Homeland Security official said.

While the United States may have a military advantage against countries such as China and Iran, the nations may be more evenly matched in the cyberspace, Paul Rosenzweig, author of the book Cyber Warfare, said at the Heritage Foundation.

“The one thing that is most salient about cyberspace today is it’s the most distributed, dynamic, non-linear environment we’ve ever experienced. It changes every day. It spans the globe in ways we can hardly imagine,” said Rosenzweig, a visiting fellow at Heritage and the former DHS deputy assistant secretary for policy.

The United States has been been in this secretive war with Iran for the last five years, Rosenzweig said. One of the most high profile events was Stuxnet, where about 1,000 Iranian centrifuges were sabotaged in a uranium nuclear purification facility, he said. Stuxnet may have set Iran’s nuclear ambitions back by two years, and it is widely believed that the United States, along with Israel, were behind the 2010 attack, he said.

“[It] actually did physically damage, which is a remarkable aspect of this new and dynamic environment … We can actually have collateral, real-world effects,” said Rosenzweig.

In retaliation, in what is known as Shamoon, Iran allegedly destroyed 30,000 computers belonging to Saudi Aramco, the state-run Saudi Arabian oil and gasoline company, in a cyber-attack in 2012. Iran may have also spearheaded a massive distributed denial of service attack against U.S. banks this fall, disrupting many transactions, Rosenzweig said.

“[This] is a way of Iran raising its hand and saying, ‘See, we can do damage to you, too, so you better be careful in what you are doing or we’ll do something much more vigorous,’” said Rosenzweig.

The United States is in a similar conflict with China, Rosenzweig said. He pointed to a recent report by Mandiant, a cybersecurity company, that said that Chinese hackers affiliated with China’s People’s Liberation Army — specifically Unit 61398 — have stolen massive amounts of data ranging from national security secrets, to weapon plans to furniture designs.

“This is an example of China being able to compete with the United States in a playing field where they may actually have an advantage, and certainly a willingness to undertake aggressive actions in ways that have not been seen before,” said Rosenzweig.

Because of the stealthy nature of cyber-attacks, many lawmakers, members of the private sector and citizens are not taking the threat seriously enough, he said.

“If somebody stole that much information from the Pentagon physically with trucks we’d notice and we’d actually do something about it. But because it’s surreptitious, because it happens in this new environment, we have been less able, less willing to take action,” Rosenzweig said.

The United States’ cybersecurity capabilities are only useful if it maintains superiority amongst its adversaries, Rosenzweig said.

“As with any new domain or system of weaponry, it’s a potential advantage for us so long as we have superior technology and advantage. And that ... is probably where we are right now,” Rosenzweig said. “So long as that situation maintains itself, that’s to America’s good. The challenge is that in this domain, unlike others, the ability of our peer and not-so-peer opponents to challenge us is much greater.”

One way to keep the United States’ advantage is by updating acquisition processes, which are painfully slow, Rosenzweig said.

“I would love to see the federal government break the hierarchical mode of IT procurement and start developing models for purchasing in these domain systems. We can’t buy them the same way we buy new jets on a five-year cycle,” he said.

Iran’s ability to disrupt Israel is equally matched or exceeded by Israel’s capability to disrupt Iran — and likewise between the United States and China. The big players in the cyberworld are in a relative place of stability, he said.

“It’s not mutually-assured destruction, it’s mutually assured-disruption, and that’s, maybe, I’m beginning to believe, a stable place,” Roszenweig said.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Re: U.S. Engaged in ‘Cyber Cold War’ with China, Iran should be mocked for use of "Cyber" with "Cold War".

The stunning misunderstanding of what the original "Cold War" was is very apparent.  There was no "nuclear Cold War" with the USSR. It was total - all elements of National Power in play, and the stakes were the whole ball of wax.   Hell, even the Olympics was contested space in that Cold War.

If we are in a new "Cold War" with China - and i leave that question to the more erudite policy folks -  then actions within the cyberspace "domain" are merely one aspect of it.

Hyperbole like this is directly responsible for politicians (typically among the more ignorant on matters such as these) to overreact, overreach, and do dopey stuff.
LongTabSigO at 3/8/2013 8:06 AM

Re: U.S. Engaged in ‘Cyber Cold War’ with China, Iran

Well if you want to mock the author and disregard what he said than that is your choice. The author simply implied that the cyber conflict has qualities of the cold war. If you can't see the similarities and seriousness of the current situation than perhaps your are one of the more ignorant ones you referred to.

However make no mistake the cyber cold war is real and is on the edge of becoming a full blow cyber war.
Derrick Forshee at 3/21/2013 9:04 PM

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