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Could China launch a cyberwar against us?

Answered April 29, 2012

Absolutely. And so could a number of other countries. And that should have our attention.

Wars can be conducted for a range of reasons -- like getting access to natural resources, playing out old disputes, or building national pride.

But in the end, all wars have to come back to economics: Does the cost of initiating and fighting one return enough value to make it worthwhile?

In the case of cyberwarfare, the traditional costs and benefits are largely overturned. Instead of mobilizing tens or hundreds of thousands of troops, and mobilizing them aboard ships and planes, and engaging the opponent with tanks and bombs and helicopters...all you really need to conduct a cyber-war is a bunch of laptops, some Internet access, and a couple of computer-science experts.

This makes it vastly cheaper to conduct war than in the past -- which means that cyberwars can be conducted over much smaller matters than full-scale shooting wars. (And they most certainly already are.)

Now, that doesn't mean that China is going to start launching debilitating cyberwars against the US over just petty little grievances. A full-scale cyberwar could disrupt Internet access all over the country, knocking out many of the critical systems that make modern life possible. And -- make no mistake -- we've done a terrible job as a country of making sure we're ready to repel those kinds of attacks. But China, at least, is so closely tied to our economy that it would be pretty suicidal to attack us on that scale as long as we're still major trading partners.

But we should anticipate much smaller skirmishes -- call them "cyber-battles" -- with countries, terrorist groups, and other organizations, from now into the foreseeable future. Cyber-battles could do anything from create nuisances that cost us money and inconvenience our lives -- all the way up to putting lives at risk in places like airports and hospitals.

The Internet makes a lot of things cheaper and easier to do -- and that includes warfare. It's important for all of us to lean on our elected officials to make sure they're aware of the risks -- and take them as seriously as they do conventional missiles and bombs.